Suicide blasts kill at least 35 in Pakistan

Today's return of exiled former PM Sharif will add to political turbulence
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The Independent Online

At least 35 people were killed in Pakistan yesterday when suicide bombers struck twice – one attack targeting a bus carrying members of an intelligence agency, the other at an army headquarters check-point. The two explosions took place in Rawalpindi, the military city just south of the capital, Islamabad.

In the first attack a car laden with explosives was driven into a bus carrying staff from the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). The bus was apparently a 72-seater vehicle, but more people may have been on board. "We suspect that pro-Taliban militants who are fighting security forces in our tribal areas are behind this attack," an official told the Associated Press.

Hizer Hayat, the owner of a nearby grocery store, said the blast occurred at 7.40 am. "After the explosion, I went out on the street and found the ignition switch for a car amid the debris. I later gave it to an intelligence agent," he said. The attack was the second major assault against the ISI in recent months. In September a suicide bomber detonated a device after boarding an ISI bus, also in Rawalpindi. On that occasion 25 people were killed.

Islamic militants have been blamed for dozens of suicide attacks this year. Most have occurred near the Afghan border, but several have taken place in the country's main cities. In Afghanistan, suicide attacks have also shot up, with more than 130 this year. The latest, against Italian troops building a bridge west of Kabul, killed nine civilians yesterday, including three children, and an Italian soldier.

Amid political turmoil in Pakistan, the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is expected to arrive back in the country today after seven years in exile. He is due to fly to Lahore from Saudi Arabia. Mr Sharif previously tried to return in September, only to be immediately deported by President Pervez Musharraf. Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, a former cabinet minister and close aide to Gen Musharraf, said that on this occasion Mr Sharif would not be pushed out.

His return will add a new ingredient to Pakistan's already turbulent political stew. Unlike another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, he has always ruled out any sort of deal with Gen Musharraf, who ousted him in a military coup in 1999 and forced him to leave the country.

Ihsan Iqbal, a spokesman for Mr Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party, said the Saudis had been stung by criticism in Pakistan, and were also aware that Gen Musharraf had scheduled parliamentary elections for 8 January. "They don't want Saudi Arabia to become an election issue in Pakistan," Mr Iqbal said.

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