US embassy targeted in Pakistan rocket attacks

SEVEN ROCKETS tore through the skies of Islamabad yesterday in a series of co-ordinated and simultaneous attacks on American and other international targets. The rockets came from home-made launchers, which were crudely welded into the back of three vehicles parked at different points in the city.

One was near the United States embassy, another close to the American cultural centre and the third was by the Saudi Pak Tower, a 20-storey office block that houses most of the United Nations offices in Islamabad. All the rockets missed their targets - in some cases literally by a mile.

Who carried out the attacks is not clear but suspicion immediately fell on the Taliban, which controls more than 90 per cent of neighbouring Afghan-istan. In two days, the UN is due to impose sanctions on the Taliban if it fails to hand over the Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, whom the US blames for a series of terrorist attacks around the world. There is no indication that he will be handed over.

Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervaiz Musharraf, said yesterday that he was willing to talk to the Taliban in an attempt to resolve the bin Laden problem

One of the rockets apparently intended for the US embassy, which is housed in a heavily fortified compound, over-flew its target and crashed through the wall of Pakistani government offices near the city centre. It landed in an unoccupied lavatory and no one was hurt. Another rocket, aimed at the UN building, flew over my house before landing harmlessly in the garden of another government building, Punjab House.

What is still not clear is how three cars with rocket launchers virtually sticking out of their windows were able to get so close to sensitive buildings. Both the Americans and the UN have tight security designed to foil precisely this kind of attack. Senior UN officials immediately went into a series of security meetings to discuss how they can protect their staff in the future. Non- essential diplomatic staff are likely to be sent back to their home countries.

Most Pakistanis took the attacks in their stride. Within minutes of the rockets going off, people were playing cricket in the street just a few hundred yards away from one of the vehicles used to launch two of the rockets.

If past practice is anything to go by, a whole group of senior officials in Pakistan's police and security agencies can expect to be sacked as the government seeks to find someone to blame for the security lapses.

Only one man, a Pakistani security guard at the American cultural centre, was lightly injured. Had the intended targets been hit, the damage would have been massive.

Even though the attacks caused little damage they pose the first big challenge to Pakistan's new military rulers. For them to establish their credibility and demonstrate they are in genuine control they will have to identify the culprits and bring them to justice.

All three vehicles used in the attacks were destroyed. Security officials said the rockets had been set off by remote control.

Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, immediately denied responsibility for the rocket attacks. He condemned them, saying: "Islam does not allow this kind of terrorism, the Taliban are against such terrorist acts."

He said the US and Pakistan should thoroughly investigate the attack before blaming the Taliban. The Pakistani Interior Minister, General Moin Uddin Haider, also played down speculation that the Taliban was involved. "There could be a connection but it's too early to make any conclusions," he said.

The military authorities in Islamabad, though, know that other groups could be responsible. There are many Islamic-based militant outfits in Pakistan that are hostile to both the United States and the United Nations. Indeed, many Pakistanis reacted by blaming America itself. "It can only be America," said one man. "Washington is seeking to justify a campaign against Muslims."