Blast at rally targets top Pakistani official

Incoming prime minister survives suicide bombing that killed 5, wounded 45


FATEH JANG, Pakistan - A suicide bomber blew himself up next to the car of Pakistan's prime minister-designate, Shaukat Aziz, at a crowded political rally yesterday evening, killing the driver and four other people but leaving Aziz unhurt, according to the police and witnesses.

The attack, near this northwestern town in Punjab province, also wounded 45 people, including seven police officials, the police said.

It was not clear who carried out the bombing, but Pakistani officials said they suspected the involvement of al-Qaida and its local sympathizers. Pakistani leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf, an ally of the United States in fighting terrorism, was the target of two suicide attacks in December that were thought to have been carried out by Pakistani militants with the help of some in the country's air force and army.

The assassination attempt on Aziz, Musharraf's hand-picked candidate to be the country's next prime minister, underlined the continued ability of militants to target the country's leadership.

The attack took place at 7:25 p.m. after a political rally with about 2,000 people ended in the village of Jaffer, about 36 miles from the capital, Islamabad.

Aziz, 55, who is now Pakistan's finance minister, is running in a by-election scheduled for Aug. 18 for a seat in Parliament's lower house, a position required before he can become prime minister.

Capt. Zafar Iqbal, of the district police, said, "Mr. Aziz was going back after his speech and as his car moved, a suicide bomber rushed through the crowd towards Mr. Aziz's car and blew himself up."

The explosion badly damaged the left side of Aziz's bulletproof Mercedes and ripped the driver's door apart. Aziz, who was sitting in the rear, was unhurt but his driver was killed and a provincial minister sitting in the front seat was injured.

Iqbal said that the suicide bomber was a young man and that his nationality was unknown.

After the attack, Aziz, seemingly unruffled, appeared on television, saying his "determination to serve Pakistan and the Islamic world has enhanced."

Aziz, a former Citibank executive with no political experience, has been described as the embodiment of the image of a modern and moderate Pakistan that Musharraf hopes to convey to the West. But opposition politicians have attacked Aziz, who lived in the West for 30 of the past 35 years, as an American stooge who has no real popular following in the country.

Musharraf has made a series of decisions - including withdrawing support to the Taliban, showing flexibility on the entrenched dispute with India over Kashmir, and ordering a series of military operations in Pakistan's tribal areas to flush out foreign guerrillas - that have made him a target for Islamic militants. His own security has been beefed up, making him a less accessible target.

Yesterday, Pakistani officials confirmed the arrest of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who is among the 22 people on the FBI's most-wanted-terrorist list. Officials said Ghailani had been arrested along with 12 other people on July 25 from the eastern city of Gujarat after a fierce gunbattle with the police.

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