Rebel's killing isolates Musharraf

August 30, 2006|By James Rupert | James Rupert,NEWSDAY

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the man Washington is leaning on to uproot Islamic extremism here in one of its main strongholds, is looking more politically isolated in the three days since his army killed a charismatic, 79-year-old rebel leader.

Even Musharraf's closest aides have left him alone in defending the killing Saturday of the ethnic Baluch leader, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti.

The Bugti affair comes as Musharraf has faced months of broadening public talk that he is failing as a national leader. He has been unable to quell - and, according to many, has exacerbated - two regional rebellions. Inflation has spiked. Also, the government is besieged with accusations that it is corrupt.

The rising dissatisfaction with Musharraf is reflected in two open letters sent to him in the past six weeks by senior political and military figures, including many former allies, underscoring that his continued dual role as president and as commanding general of the military poses dangers for Pakistan and its ability to evolve toward a real democracy.

Musharraf - and the Bush administration - hope that he can muddle through and somehow strengthen his political legitimacy next year through an election.

Riots and protests continued for a third day yesterday in towns of Baluchistan, a province of deserts and mountains where nationalist guerrillas and Bugti's tribal warriors have fought the government since early last year.

Newspaper editorials and leaders from across Pakistan's political spectrum continued to condemn Bugti's killing, saying it wipes out prospects for a peaceful solution anytime soon to the decades of episodic insurgency by Baluch nationalists.

Musharraf defended the attack on Bugti, a pugnacious politician who had moved to Baluchistan's mountains to command thousands of men from his tribe in a guerrilla war. "Whoever wants to harm Pakistan ... would have to fight with me first," Musharraf said in a speech Monday according a Pakistani news service.

But he appears to be the only member of his administration trying to publicly justify the killing of a man who, while autocratic, has been part of Pakistan's political elite since the country's birth in 1947.

After a series of recent attacks by Bugti's tribesmen, government and military sources said last weekend that an elite army special forces unit had killed Bugti in an assault on mountainside caves where he was hiding. Musharraf reportedly congratulated the military Sunday in a high-level government meeting.

Still, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and Musharraf's military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, have since backed away from Musharraf's assertion of victory. They told reporters Monday that the government never knew Bugti was in the caves. Indeed, said Sultan, the explosion that collapsed his hideout was an accident.

Other members of Musharraf's political team - including his foreign minister and the two top leaders of his chosen political party, the Pakistan Muslim League - have publicly mourned or criticized Bugti's death.

James Rupert writes for Newsday.

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