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32 slain in Pakistan suicide blast

The bomber strikes a hospital in the nation's northwest. The ruling coalition bickers over reinstating fired judges.

August 20, 2008|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Against the backdrop of a lethal strike by Taliban militants, Pakistan's fractious ruling coalition appeared to splinter anew Tuesday after acting in concert a day before to oust President Pervez Musharraf.

Although Musharraf's resignation in the face of an impeachment threat was widely seen as marking the start of a new era, Tuesday's events clearly demonstrated that some unpleasant realities remain unchanged.

In volatile northwestern Pakistan, where government forces have been locked in an escalating confrontation with Islamic militants, a suicide bomber entered a hospital emergency ward and blew himself up, killing at least 32 people, authorities said.

The attack in the town of Dera Ismail Khan, near Pakistan's tribal borderlands, coincided with the most intense fighting in years in some areas abutting Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing and demanded that the government call off military offensives in the tribal area of Bajaur and in the Swat Valley, about 100 miles north of Islamabad, the capital.

Many of those killed and injured at the hospital were visiting relatives hurt in a separate, sectarian clash between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in the tribal areas. Some of those visiting the hospital compound were protesting the death of a Shiite leader.

Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the fighting in Bajaur and Swat, creating a refugee crisis described by some officials as one of Pakistan's biggest internal displacements ever. Government troops have been using helicopter gunships to raid suspected militant hide-outs in the tribal areas.

Word of the hospital bombing came as coalition leaders met in the capital for their first major policy talks since Musharraf's ouster. No signs of consensus immediately emerged on the question of a successor to the former president, who until late last year was also the nation's military chief.

Under the constitution, a new president is to be selected within 30 days.

Within the coalition, disagreement openly flared over the question of reinstating the judges Musharraf fired last year. The junior party in the coalition, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has demanded the immediate restoration of the previous judiciary. But the Pakistan People's Party, led by Asif Ali Zardari, has taken a much more cautious approach, saying many technical issues need to be resolved before the judges can be returned to the bench.

The full restoration of the judges, including independent-minded Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, could cause legal complications for Zardari, who took over the party after the assassination of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Zardari returned to Pakistan under an amnesty covering corruption allegations dating to his tenure as a minister in his wife's Cabinet in the 1990s. The so-called reconciliation ordinance was signed by Musharraf and went unchallenged by the judges he appointed to replace the fired ones.

Closed-door discussions over the judges' status became so heated that Zardari and Sharif were seen apparently avoiding a handshake as the talks broke up. Pakistani media also reported that Sharif had given Zardari a 72-hour deadline for action on the judiciary.

Amid the infighting, Musharraf's personal fate remains undecided as well. He said in his resignation speech that he had not struck an immunity deal, though associates had been seeking through back channels to ensure that he would not face prosecution for his actions as president.

Sharif, who was overthrown in a 1999 coup by Musharraf, has demanded that the former general stand trial for treason, though he insists he is not motivated by a desire for revenge.

"We cannot forget the crimes he has committed against the nation," Ahsan Iqbal, a senior official in Sharif's party, said of Musharraf.

Zardari and his People's Party have shown far less inclination to go after Musharraf legally, saying it's more important to focus on problems such as the faltering economy and the deterioration of law and order.

The ruling coalition had intended to cite gross constitutional violations in its impeachment charge-sheet against Musharraf, who last year suspended the constitution during a six-week stint of emergency rule, which amounted to martial law. Later, under duress, he gave up his military post.

Musharraf has indicated he would like to stay in Pakistan rather than go into exile, but the coalition might find his presence a threat.

During its first five months in office, the coalition has made little headway in forming a strategy for dealing with Islamic militants. It tried to negotiate truces with Pakistani Taliban commanders in the tribal areas and elsewhere in the northwest -- pacts that for the most part have broken down.

The Bush administration and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization blamed those negotiations for a rise in insurgent attacks against Western troops in Afghanistan by militants thought to be using the Pakistani tribal areas as a staging ground.

Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who replaced Musharraf as military chief of staff in November, paid an unannounced visit Tuesday to Afghanistan and met with senior counterparts in the Afghan army and the NATO-led force there. Afghanistan's government has complained repeatedly that Pakistan is not doing nearly enough to prevent militants from staging attacks on Afghan soil.

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laura.king@latimes.com

Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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