Attack kills 3 at Christian hospital

Pakistan fears more acts against Western interests

August 10, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TAXILA, Pakistan - Raising fears of a resurgence of Islamic militancy, a bomb attack on a Christian hospital yesterday morning killed three Pakistani nurses and injured 23 people as they left a chapel after prayer services.

After the attack, the second on a Christian target this week, Western diplomats and Pakistani officials voiced concern that Islamic militant groups might be mounting a new challenge to one of the United States' most important allies in the war on terrorism, President Pervez Musharraf.

Witnesses and officials said there had been three assailants, one who held the hospital's lone guard at bay while two others hurled powerful homemade explosives at dozens of nurses.

The attack came just four days after six Pakistanis were killed when masked gunmen attacked a Christian missionary school 40 miles away.

Both attacks were carried out in towns close to the capital, Islamabad, in areas thought to be firmly under government control. In the more volatile western city of Quetta, near the border with southern Afghanistan, unidentified gunmen shot and critically wounded a Pakistani general yesterday.

Pakistani experts warn that the country may be entering a period of repeated terrorist attacks by an array of militant groups enraged by Musharraf's decision to align himself with the United States after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

"These militants are fighting back, and I think it will continue for many months," said Tariq Rahman, a linguistics professor at Quaid-e-Azam University who has studied the groups. "They are calling the bluff of the government."

A Western diplomat predicted: "You will have more and more of these kinds of attacks. It's open season against not only foreigners and Christians but also Musharraf."

No group had claimed responsibility for the attack by last night.

Pakistan's information minister, Nisar Memon, said yesterday's killings were "a sinister attempt to drive a wedge between the Muslim and Christian communities of Pakistan."

About 97 percent of the 140 million Pakistanis are Muslim; fewer than 2 percent are Christian.

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who leads one of the two important opposition parties but is banned from taking part in October elections, claimed that the military leadership was losing its grip. "It claims to be a strong, one-man show, whereas the reality is that the situation is slipping out of hand," she said in a statement from London, where she lives in exile rather than face charges of widespread corruption during her two terms in office.

The October elections are supposed to create a democratic legislature and government to balance Musharraf, who is becoming increasingly unpopular.

Pakistani experts said the majority of Pakistanis continue to oppose militancy. They pointed out that the country's religious parties had consistently fared poorly in elections and predicted that the attacks would further alienate the population.

But Najam Sethi, editor of The Friday Times, an English-language newspaper in Lahore, said the goal of the militants was not to increase their popularity. It is to remove Musharraf from power.

"I think these are not aimed at getting popular support," he said of the attacks. "They are to isolate Pakistan and destabilize Musharraf."

Although Pakistanis generally welcomed his rise to power in a coup in October 1999 after a series of corrupt civilian governments, his heavy-handed methods, particularly a clumsy referendum last spring to prolong his rule, have cost him support among pro-Western Pakistanis, while anti-Western militants detest his alignment with the United States.

Pakistani officials, who have vowed to crack down on militants, were reluctant to speculate on who might have carried out this week's attacks.

But diplomats say some small militant groups may be spontaneously conducting separate strikes, while others may be working on larger operations with help from the remnants of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida guerrillas, who are thought to have fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan as Taliban rule collapsed.

Western diplomats and Pakistani experts say the latest attacks may be a last desperate effort by militants slowly losing their bases of support in the region.

After Musharraf announced a crackdown on militant organizations in January, members of various groups formed a loose coalition that vowed to topple the military government. The coalition is named Lashkar-e-Omar - or Omar's Army - after Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the militant leader convicted of masterminding the kidnapping and murder of the American journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi.

The attack on the Taxila Christian hospital yesterday laid out a pattern that observers fear could be repeated over and over in Pakistan. "How do you stop something like this?" an ashen-faced Western diplomat said yesterday as he stood among pools of blood and shattered glass.

Until recently, militants had selected targets such as the American Consulate in the militant and restive southern city of Karachi, where an explosion killed 12 Pakistanis in June. On July 13, a grenade thrown at foreign tourists following the ancient Silk Road in Mansehra in northern Pakistan injured nine Europeans.

But this week's attacks have hit institutions associated with Christianity and foreign missionaries. Only Pakistanis have been killed, but diplomats said they were apparently attacked for their association with these Western, Christian institutions.

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