RAWALPINDI (AFP) — Two suicide bombings Tuesday ripped through a military bus and a market near the Pakistani army’s headquarters, killing 25 people in the latest attacks aimed at destabilising President Pervez Musharraf.
The bombers blew themselves up minutes apart in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, a devastating coordinated strike that officials said bore the hallmarks of Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network.
Pakistan has suffered a string of attacks since the raid of the pro-Taliban Red Mosque in Islamabad in July, piling pressure on key US ally Musharraf as he struggles with a political crisis ahead of general and presidential elections.
“Today’s attack was in the heart of the high security zone. This cannot be allowed to go on and measures have to be taken to ensure political stability,” Religious Affairs Minister Ijaz-ul Haq told AFP.
The first bomber boarded a bus full of defence ministry employees going to work during rush hour and detonated himself close to the army’s nerve centre and Musharraf’s official military residence, killing 17 people, officials said.
The white 40-seater bus was almost completely destroyed by the blast, with its roof ripped open and windows blown out. Rescue workers cut open the wreckage to pull out injured people and dead bodies.
“There was a huge bang, then I saw the bus in a mangled heap. Body parts were scattered across the road and there was blood everywhere,” witness Mohammad Tahir said.
A police source said the bus was carrying employees from Pakistan’s premier spy agency in the fight against Al-Qaeda, the ISI or Inter-Services Intelligence, but this was not confirmed by other officials.
The second suicide blast, about three kilometres (two miles) away in the city’s crowded Royal Artillery bazaar, was timed to target army officers who use the route to reach the military headquarters, security officials said.
At least eight people were killed in that blast, but it was not clear if any military personnel were among them. Officials said the attacker may have been on a motorcycle. A burnt bike was found at the scene.
Police later recovered eight kilos (17 pounds) of explosives attached to a detonator and placed in a sack outside an army officers’ mess in Rawalpindi, a senior police officer said.
Army spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said a total of 25 people were killed and 68 were wounded in the blasts.
Interior ministry spokesman Brigadier Javed Cheema said “both suicide blasts are interlinked and acts of the same network.” He added that “tentacles” of the recent violence extended to Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
The sophistication of Tuesday’s near-simultaneous blasts “shows an Al-Qaeda signature,” a top intelligence official told AFP on condition of anonymity, adding that the “perpetrators had good intelligence about their targets.”
Musharraf has been under mounting pressure to tackle Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants whom US officials allege have regrouped in Pakistan’s troubled tribal areas since fleeing there after the events of 9/11.
At least 60 soldiers and 250 militants have been killed in Islamic extremist violence since the military’s crackdown on the Red Mosque, which itself left more than 100 people dead.
The army is still trying to secure the safety of more than 150 soldiers whom militants say they abducted late last week in the tribal area of South Waziristan. The military insists they are still safe.
Four soldiers abducted in June in another tribal region were freed on Tuesday.
Musharraf not only faces a fight against extremism but is also trying for a power-sharing deal with ex-premier Benazir Bhutto to end a political crisis sparked by his suspension of Pakistan’s chief justice earlier this year.
Musharraf wants to stand for another five-year term as president-in-uniform this month or next, but Bhutto wants him to quit as army chief.
Both sides reported progress in talks in Dubai on Tuesday. Another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has also vowed to return home on September 10.