ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- President Gen. Pervez Musharraf survived an apparent assassination attempt yesterday when shots were fired at his aircraft as it took off from a military base, authorities and witnesses said.
It was not immediately clear whether there was any connection between the shooting incident and the continuing siege by Pakistani troops of a radical mosque here in the capital. At least 19 people are reported to have died in the mosque confrontation, which began Tuesday.
Pakistan has been gripped by a sense of crisis over the past four months as a burgeoning pro-democracy movement has challenged Musharraf's attempts to sideline the chief justice of the Supreme Court, who might have posed an obstacle to the president's efforts to secure another term of leadership virtually unchallenged.
Despite the turmoil, the Bush administration has so far stood by Musharraf, considered a key ally in the fight against the Taliban and other Islamic insurgents in Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan. Among American policymakers, it is widely believed that the toppling of the general, who seized power in a bloodless coup eight years ago, could create a dangerous power vacuum in nuclear-armed Pakistan, which is home to many militant groups.
Musharraf's aircraft came under fire as it took off from the Chakala air base in Rawalpindi, a garrison city adjoining the capital. Police said two anti-aircraft guns and a light machine gun were seized from a house that lay directly beneath the flight path of the base, and also below the path of planes arriving and departing from Islamabad's international airport.
The president's plane landed without incident in the town of Turbat, in Pakistan's south.
Security officials in Rawalpindi said 25 light machine-gun rounds were apparently fired toward the aircraft. A neighbor, Imram Sheikh, said the house was occupied by a family of renters but said he knew little more about them.
Musharraf has been the target of at least three previous assassination bids, all of which were believed to have been masterminded by Islamic militants. Two of the attempts on his life, in the form of bombs aimed at his convoy, took place weeks apart, in late 2003 and early 2004.
The Associated Press cited a senior security official as blaming yesterday's attack on "miscreants," generally used as a code word for Islamic militants.
In the capital, paramilitary and army troops backed by armored vehicles and helicopters kept a tight cordon around the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, where dozens of militants were believed by authorities to be holed up.
More than 1,200 people, many of them teenage students from both a male and a female Islamic seminary inside the complex, have surrendered to authorities since fighting with security forces erupted Tuesday.
Pakistan's interior secretary, Syed Kamal Shah, renewed calls for the militants inside the Red Mosque to surrender. But in a sign of efforts to achieve some compromise, Shah said authorities were withdrawing a demand that the men emerge shirtless from the compound - a precaution against potential suicide bombers.
Mubashir Zaidi and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times.