Al-Qaida may be behind failed attempt to kill next prime minister: Pakistani official

Saturday, July 31st 2004, 11:40 am
By: News On 6

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) _ A militant group claiming links to al-Qaida said it carried out an assassination attempt against Pakistan's prime minister-designate, saying in a Web message Saturday that the suicide bombing was a response to Pakistan's handing militants over to the United States.

Pakistani officials have focused their suspicions on Osama bin Laden's terror network in the attack against Shaukat Aziz, which killed eight people and wounded three dozen others. Among those killed was Aziz's driver, who had not yet closed the bulletproof door on the car when a man approached and detonated a bomb.

Pakistani television showed gruesome video of Friday's bombing, with the camera capturing an image of the suicide attacker approaching the driver's door, raising his hand and then blowing up. It was not clear if he was signaling to someone.

The attacker, whose head was found not far from the blast site, appeared to be a Pakistani man in his early 20s, said Capt. Zubair Ahmad, a local police official.

An statement issued in the name of the ``Islambouli Brigades of al-Qaida'' claimed responsibility for the attack.

``One of our blessed battalions tried to hunt a head of one of America's infidels in Pakistan while he was returning from Fateh Jang, but God wanted him to survive,'' said the Arabic-language statement posted on a Web site often used by Islamic radicals.

It was impossible to verify its authenticity. Lt. Khaled Islambouli was the leader of the group of soldiers who assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat during a military parade in Cairo in 1981.

The statement said the attack was a response to Musharraf's handing of captured militants to the Americans. ``This operation yesterday will be followed by a series of painful strikes if you don't stop what you are doing by complying to the wicked (President) Bush's orders,'' the group said, addressing Musharraf.

Al-Qaida and other militant groups have denounced Musharraf for allying himself with the United States in the war on terrorism. Pakistan has captured a number of high-level figures in al-Qaida, handing some over to U.S. custody. The arrest of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani _ a Tanzanian accused in the 1998 East African embassy attacks _ was announced hours before the attack on Aziz.

Government officials were quick to point the finger at international terror groups, which have worked with home-grown Pakistani extremists in the past.

``Al-Qaida may be behind it,'' Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told The Associated Press but added that there is no hard evidence linking the group to the attack.

The attack on Aziz, the finance minister already tapped to become the nation's next prime minister, occurred Friday as the 60-year-old politician left an election campaign rally in Fateh Jang, a town 35 miles southwest of the capital.

Aziz and local mayor Tahir Sadiq had just gotten into a bulletproof Mercedes, parked in a crowded area when a man approached the car and set off the blast.

``The moment I sat in the car with Aziz there was an explosion,'' Sadiq said. ``He is safe and God Almighty is the greatest protector.''

An AP photographer who arrived at the scene shortly after the attack said body parts, blood and glass were strewn over a wide area.

Two hours after the attack, Aziz _ appearing unhurt _ told a gathering of supporters outside his Islamabad home that he was fine and would ``continue to serve the country with the same commitment and determination.''

Musharraf condemned the attack and expressed grief over the loss of lives. ``These cowardly acts will not deter us from our fight against terror,'' he said.

Musharraf's ruling party has said it wants Aziz to be prime minister, but he must first gain a parliamentary seat in an Aug. 18 by-election to be eligible. Aziz, a former Citibank executive credited with turning around Pakistan's economy under Musharraf, was in Fateh Jang for a campaign stop, but his victory is all but assured.

Opposition parties have denounced the proceedings as an affront to Pakistani democracy, five years after Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup.

When Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali stepped down last month _ reportedly after disputes with Musharraf _ Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain was appointed caretaker prime minister.

Pakistani intelligence officials arrested Ghailani _ who is on the F.B.I.'s top 22 wanted terrorists list and has a $25 million reward on his head _ during a raid Sunday after a 12-hour firefight in the eastern Pakistani city of Gujrat. Fifteen others were arrested with him, including his Uzbek wife.

The government said it would consider extraditing Ghailani to America, but only after it finishes questioning him. He faces the death penalty if convicted in the United States on charges linked to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.