Bombing kills 6 in Pakistan

Blast near Danish Embassy hurts dozens, raises fears of al-Qaida

June 03, 2008|By Mubashir Zaidi and Laura King | Mubashir Zaidi and Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - A car bombing that killed at least six people and wounded dozens near the Danish Embassy yesterday raised fears that al-Qaida-linked militants might be moving to fill a void left by other Islamist fighters seeking truces with Pakistan's new government.

The powerful blast occurred in a leafy, upscale neighborhood of the capital, just outside the gates of the embassy, which has been the target of angry protests over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published in Danish newspapers. It was the second bombing in less than three months to target foreigners or foreign interests in the Pakistani capital.

The explosion, which could be heard across much of the normally tranquil city, shattered windows in the embassy building, left a deep crater in the road outside and wrecked dozens of vehicles parked nearby. Panicked neighbors ran into the street, calling for help.

Most embassy personnel were no longer working in the building, in the wake of protests early this year after Danish newspapers reprinted the 2005 cartoons. The dead included two police officers, a janitor at the Danish mission and passers-by, authorities said.

The force of the blast, which came during lunch hour, twisted the embassy's heavy metal gates and knocked down a section of the wall surrounding the building.

Recently, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second-in-command of al-Qaida, had urged followers to strike at Danish targets over the offending cartoons. The blast, coming after weeks of relative calm in Pakistan, suggested that the government might be vulnerable to such attacks even if it can make peace with so-called local Taliban.

Pakistan's ruling coalition, led by the party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, condemned the attack. But officials said they would not be deterred from conducting negotiations with Islamic militants based in Pakistan's tribal areas along the Afghan border and elsewhere in the country's volatile northwest.

Those negotiations have resulted in truce accords with some smaller militant groups but not with Baitullah Mahsud, the leader of the main umbrella group of Pakistani Taliban. Pakistani authorities and the CIA have blamed Mahsud, who is thought to have links to al-Qaida, for masterminding the Dec. 27 assassination of Bhutto, a charge he has denied.

Until now, groups such as Mahsud's have cited the policies of the Pakistani government as a pretext for carrying out attacks. Yesterday's bombing suggested that wider Western interests could also be targeted.

U.S. officials have been giving the recently elected leadership time to establish firm control over Pakistan, even as it makes overtures to extremist groups in the western tribal regions.

"This is still a new civilian government," said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, speaking at a security conference in Singapore over the weekend. "We need to give them time to gain an appreciation of the range of challenges that they face and the nature of the challenge there in the northwest." Privately, Defense Department officials acknowledge some disagreement within the Pentagon over whether to press the new government to move more aggressively against al-Qaida-linked fighters. Some officials are concerned about recent intelligence reports that suggest al-Qaida is regaining its capabilities to strike outside South Asia.

The U.S. Embassy urged Americans to exercise great caution when moving about in Islamabad after yesterday's blast, which damaged two nearby diplomatic residences. The area is heavily guarded, and most motorists need diplomatic plates to enter.

The force of the explosion was so strong that the engine of the car in which the bomb was believed to have been planted was thrown more than 100 feet, landing in the garden of a villa. The nearby office of a United Nations-funded group was evacuated, and more than 30 of its employees suffered cuts from flying glass.

Western news agencies quoted Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller as saying that no Danes were among the dead in the bombing, though later reports said one victim might have been a dual national with a Danish passport.

Diplomatic missions in Islamabad have been sensitive to threats against them. The Dutch mission moved into a heavily guarded five-star hotel this year. The last major attack targeting foreigners occurred March 15, when an explosion at a restaurant popular with expatriates killed a Turkish woman and wounded a dozen others, including five FBI employees.

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

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