Suicide attack hits Pakistan

A car packed with explosives killed 11 French nationals and 3 Pakistanis yesterday – perhaps nation's first suicide bombing.

A suicide bomber blew up a bus yesterday in Pakistan's port city of Karachi, killing 14 people – most of them French nationals – including himself. The huge morning blast outside the posh Sheraton Hotel also left 24 people wounded.

At present, there are as many theories as to who masterminded the blast as there are extremist groups who could have perpetrated the attack.

Many experts say it is pointed retaliation at Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's crackdown on Islamic militant groups and for his allowing US troops to cross the Pakistani border to hunt down Al Qaeda fighters. Moreover, the trial for the four Muslim men accused of murdering Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl resumed yesterday. After the slaying of Mr. Pearl, his captors, who were suspected Islamic militants, warned of more attacks against foreigners.

Some experts are pointing to Muttahida Quami Movement, a Karachi-based political party with past ties to separatist groups that supported Mr. Musharraf during the recent referendum and changed its mind after Musharraf won.

Other possible players include militant groups with ties to Al Qaeda, such as the Harkatul Mujahideen and Jaish-e Muhammad, which are both blamed for airline hijackings, kidnapping of foreigners, including Pearl. The bombing coincides with the resumption of the trial of four Muslims accused of kidnapping and murdering Pearl.

Persistent rumors continue that Indian or Pakistani agencies may be stirring up trouble in a bid to weaken Musharraf before the October elections.

After the blast, Musharraf held emergency talks with top military leaders and security officials to discuss the situation.

The "sole purpose of the enemies of Pakistan is to disrupt its economic recovery," said an official statement released after Musharraf met his security and intelligence advisers. "By this act of terrorism against the French citizens who were involved in a defense-related project, the terrorists have clearly tried to weaken the defense of the country.

Musharraf spoke by telephone to French President Jacques Chirac and assured him that Pakistan would spare no effort to hunt down the culprits, an official said, adding that Mr. Chirac offered French assistance in the investigations.

Police and intelligence sources say that the blast could be retaliation by Islamic extremists linked to Al Qaeda or the handiwork of agents in neighboring India. After Musharraf banned five Pakistani militant groups last January – some of which are linked to Al Qaeda – they vowed revenge.

"It is an act of sabotage clearly aimed at hitting Pakistan's defense capability and strategic interests," Information Minister Nisar Memon says, blaming unnamed "forces inimical to Pakistan's interests."

In Karachi, the provincial police chief, Syed Kamal Shah, says the investigation would cover all aspects including involvement of Al Qaeda elements or a possible Indian hand in the incident.

This was the most deadly attack against foreigners in Pakistan since Musharraf joined the US-led international coalition in September, providing bases to American military for logistical support.

"This is the first confirmed suicide attack in Pakistan and indicates a very serious threat to the civil society and the government," says political analyst Mohammad Afzal Niazi. Mr. Niazi says Pakistani officials must determine whether the attack was carried out by internal militant groups or outside Arabs. "Arabs have a history of suicide attacks, but Pakistanis have never been known to indulge in such acts. If Pakistanis have become so desperate as to carry out suicide attacks to achieve their objective, then it puts an already exhausted security apparatus under more pressure."

Anger over the US campaign in Afghanistan has surged among radical Islamic circles lately, after American military personnel joined Pakistani troops in operations in Pakistani tribal territory over the past weeks to capture Al Qaeda fugitives.

"This appears to be a reprisal attack from the Al Qaeda," says Khalid Mahmood, an analyst at the Islamabad-based Institute of Regional Studies. "It appears that some hard-line Taliban or Al Qaeda terrorists have sneaked into Pakistan and are actively planning to disturb peace in the country."

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