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Islamabad airport is targeted

Foiled by guards near the Pakistani capital, an attacker opens fire and blows himself up with a grenade, injuring three.

February 07, 2007|Mubashir Zaidi and Laura King | Special to The Times

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — An assailant blew himself up about 200 yards from the main terminal at Islamabad's international airport Tuesday night, in the latest attack on a high-profile target in or near the Pakistani capital by suspected Islamic militants.

The attacker, challenged by security guards as he tried to enter the airport on foot shortly after 9 p.m., opened fire with a pistol and then set off a grenade, witnesses and officials said. It wasn't immediately clear whether he had intended to kill himself.

At least three security officials were wounded by the gunfire and the blast, Pakistani authorities said, but the attacker was the only fatality.

Although the assailant failed to penetrate airport security and enter the crowded main terminal, the choice of the airport as a target was a clear challenge to the authority of the Pakistani government.

President Pervez Musharraf is considered a key ally in the U.S.-led battle against Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, but his administration has come under increasing scrutiny by Western governments and Afghanistan, which claims Pakistani intelligence is supporting the Taliban. Pakistan denies any such complicity.

The airport strike came less than two weeks after a suicide attack aimed at a hotel in the Pakistani capital that is frequented by foreigners and often the site of diplomatic and official events. The Jan. 26 explosion outside the Marriott Hotel also killed only the assailant. The blast, however, occurred in what had been regarded as a secure enclave of Islamabad, one that is home to many government officials.

Pakistan's interior minister, Aftab Khan Sherpao, described the airport blast as a suicide attack and said the government would not bow to pressure by insurgents.

The nation has been roiled by a series of suicide bombings in recent weeks. At least one major attack, a blast Jan. 27 in the frontier city of Peshawar that killed 14 police officers and bystanders, was thought to have been linked to sectarian strife between Sunni Muslims and minority Shiites.

That attack took place during a major Shiite festival, Ashura.

The identity of the airport attacker was not disclosed, but police said an initial investigation indicated he was an ethnic Pashtun.

The tribal belt straddling the Pakistani-Afghan border, the scene of escalating strife between Islamic militants and Pakistani security forces, is almost exclusively populated by Pashtuns.

Marwat Ali Shah, the police deputy inspector general, said the attacker opened fire after getting out of a white car, whose driver was later arrested. Police said they had recovered two unexploded grenades and two pistols, but it was unclear whether they were found on the assailant's body or in the car.

In recent weeks, other violent attacks have taken place in Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas, a haven for Taliban fighters and other insurgents fighting either Musharraf's government or coalition troops across the border in Afghanistan.

The capital's international airport is about seven miles outside Islamabad, near the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

laura.king@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Zaidi reported from Islamabad and Times staff writer King from Istanbul, Turkey.

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