Bomber kills 8 in Pakistan

Some fear Musharraf will declare emergency rule or martial law

November 02, 2007|By Mubashir Zaidi and Laura King | Mubashir Zaidi and Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- A suicide bomber struck a bus carrying air force personnel in central Pakistan yesterday, killing at least eight people, in the second such attack on a military target in three days.

The bombing at an air base south of the capital, Islamabad, coincided with new fighting between government forces and Islamic militants in the Swat valley, a previously quiet area of northern Pakistan that has been roiled by violence in the past week.

The growing unrest has heightened speculation that Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who is awaiting a Supreme Court ruling over whether his election in October to another term is valid, might declare emergency rule or martial law.

The high court ruling was expected this week, but judges said yesterday that it would be put off until Nov. 12 -- just three days before Musharraf is scheduled to be inaugurated.

He has promised to relinquish his position as chief of the nation's military before being sworn in, but the Pakistani leader is seen as unlikely to surrender his army role if the Supreme Court strikes down his Oct. 6 election by lawmakers.

More than two dozen people were wounded in the early morning bombing outside the Sargodha air base by an assailant on a motorcycle, military officials said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the chief army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad, called it an act of terrorism.

On Tuesday, a bomber blew himself up within a half-mile of Musharraf's office at the tightly guarded army headquarters in Islamabad's sister city, Rawalpindi, killing eight people.

Elsewhere, provincial officials said up to 70 Islamic militants had been killed yesterday in fighting in Swat, where a radical cleric has mustered a force of several thousand followers. Local officials and witnesses, however, cast doubt on that claim.

Thousands of Pakistani troops were deployed late last month in Swat, in volatile North-West Frontier Province. However, the valley lies outside Pakistan's tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, where most such clashes between troops and militants have taken place.

The pro-Taliban cleric, Maulana Qazi Fazlullah, declared a cease-fire earlier this week and government forces appeared to go along. The new fighting was apparently set off when Fazlullah's followers attacked outposts manned by security forces.

Authorities said security in urban and border areas is deteriorating.

"With reference to extremists and terrorists, it's a bad situation," said Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, an Interior Ministry spokesman. His statement was the most recent by Musharraf's aides that have fueled speculation that the president might cite the unrest to justify a declaration of emergency rule.

Musharraf, whose popularity has plummeted in the past six months, is likely to face new challenges to his authority in coming months, even if he survives the court challenge.

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who returned to the country Oct. 18, has been in power-sharing talks with the general. However, Bhutto has made it clear that whether or not they reach an accommodation, she will lead her party's campaign in parliamentary elections due by mid-January.

Bhutto, who escaped a bombing that killed more than 140 in her homecoming procession early Oct. 19, returned to the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai yesterday to visit her family. She had considered canceling her trip, saying she feared Musharraf was preparing to declare emergency rule or martial law.

Either step would give the government expanded powers to suppress dissent, muzzle the news media and put off elections.

The Supreme Court has said it will not be swayed by the prospect of martial law as it deliberates whether to overturn the vote re-electing Musharraf.

In a gesture of defiance, the high court handed down a suspended 15-day jail term yesterday to Islamabad's former police chief and his deputy for maltreating Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry during an attempt by Musharraf to fire Chaudhry this year.

Separately, justices expressed impatience with the pace of a government investigation of the bombing of Bhutto's convoy. Chaudhry ordered a report on the status of the probe.

Bhutto blamed Islamic militants for carrying out the attack but said she believed they acted in complicity with rogue elements in the government.

Mubashir Zaidi and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times.

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