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Pakistan militants' message: No letup

August 22, 2008|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — In a devastating strike that signals that this week's departure of President Pervez Musharraf will bring no letup in their bloody campaign, Islamic militants took aim Thursday at a highly symbolic target: Pakistan's main weapons-building complex.

At least 60 people were killed and about 100 injured when a pair of suicide bombers blew themselves up at the gates of the sprawling munitions complex at Wah cantonment, about 30 miles northwest of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. It was midafternoon; most of those wounded or killed were workers finishing a shift at one of the many factories within, or arriving for the next.

The message was unmistakable: no quarter for Pakistan's new civilian government, at least not as long as it moves to confront insurgents on their home turf in Pakistan's wild tribal borderlands.

That could bode ill for a national leadership already beset by internal and external problems.

Officials said they believed the attackers had hoped to penetrate the heavily fortified complex, which had been considered by security forces to be virtually impregnable. Had the suicide bombers been able to force their way inside and set off any of the vast stockpiles of explosives and ordnance, the level of death and damage would have been far greater.

Even though the apparent plan may not have succeeded, it was nonetheless a powerful blow against Pakistan's military and arms industry, explicitly warning civilians associated with weapons production that as far as the militants are concerned, they are combatants like any soldier.

Pakistan's Taliban movement claimed responsibility for the blasts, pressing its demand that government forces halt an offensive in the largely lawless regions abutting Afghanistan. For more than a week, helicopter gunships have been blasting suspected militant hide-outs in the Bajaur tribal agency, a mountainous redoubt where both Taliban and Al Qaeda figures are thought to shelter.

The attack showed that even with the exit of longtime U.S. ally Musharraf, who resigned Monday rather than face impeachment proceedings, Pakistan still faces a lethally determined insurgency.

And like militants across the border in Afghanistan, Pakistan's Taliban fighters appear to have become better organized and armed and capable of wreaking more havoc with large-scale attacks on major government and military installations.

Thursday's bombing was the single deadliest strike blamed on Islamic insurgents since the attack on former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's homecoming convoy in October that left more than 150 people dead. Bhutto was assassinated two months later; then, in February, the ruling party allied with Musharraf suffered an overwhelming defeat in parliamentary elections to parties including Bhutto's.

Television news channels Thursday showed chaotic scenes at the sprawling complex, which houses about 15 separate arms factories and employs more than 20,000 people. Witnesses described a frantic impromptu rescue effort, with people loading the injured into cars and even onto motorbikes to rush them to the nearest hospital.

Maulvi Omar, who claims to speak for militant commander Baitullah Mahsud, told Pakistani journalists that the strike was in retribution for offensives by government forces in Bajaur and other parts of the country's northwest. Omar, speaking from an undisclosed location, threatened more suicide attacks in urban areas, including the capital.

Last year, militants staged suicide attacks at a rate of more than one a week, but the strikes tapered off after the new government took office in March and signaled willingness to negotiate truces with some militant leaders, including Mahsud.

Musharraf had served as a focal point of militants' rage since last summer when he allowed the storming of a radical mosque. The ex-general, who also served as a hated symbol of Pakistan's alliance with the United States against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, was targeted by militants, surviving several assassination attempts.

The attack Thursday came as the ruling coalition, which acted in unison to oust Musharraf, appeared headed toward a split. Its two main parties -- one of them the slain Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, the other led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif -- have been quarreling over when and how to reinstate judges fired by Musharraf, and over who should be the next president.

Senior officials in the People's Party indicated that the party wanted to put forth its leader, Asif Ali Zardari, as the presidential nominee, a step that could come as soon as today. Sharif objects, and many Pakistanis are also mistrustful of Zardari, who took over the party leadership after his wife's assassination, because of corruption allegations dating to the 1990s, when he served in her Cabinet.

Like several other attacks mounted in the last year by Islamic militants, the strike against the munitions complex appeared to point to possible inside knowledge of the compound's layout and security systems, along with the comings and goings of its workers. Militants have boasted that they have infiltrators in Pakistan's security forces and intelligence agencies.

Even when attacking official installations, the insurgents have shown scant regard for civilian life. A suicide bombing Tuesday targeted a government-run hospital in Dera Ismail Khan, a northwestern town that lies near the tribal areas, killing 32 people.

Scores of other civilians have been killed and wounded in attacks on police posts, courthouses and military bases.

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laura.king@latimes.com

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