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Bombing in Pakistan kills army's surgeon general

Another deadly attack targets an aid group. The violence is an ominous sign for the nascent coalition.

February 26, 2008|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — In separate deadly attacks Monday, a suicide bomber killed the army's surgeon general and seven other people, and gunmen burst into the offices of a British-based aid group in northern Pakistan, shooting four local staffers to death and burning down their building.

The assaults, blamed on Islamic militants, were the most serious outbreak of violence since parliamentary elections a week earlier, in which the ruling party affiliated with President Pervez Musharraf was routed by two main opposition parties.

Taken together, the attacks were an ominous sign that the new coalition government being formed by the election winners may get little more quarter from Islamic insurgents than has the current administration.

In the attack that killed Lt. Gen. Mushtaq Ahmed Baig, the army's top medical officer, a suicide bomber disguised as a street beggar approached the general's car on foot on a busy street in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, authorities said.

Baig was the most senior army official to die in an attack during the six years that Pakistan has been allied with the United States in the fight against Islamic militants.

The bombing was the latest of a string of attacks in Rawalpindi, the seat of the Pakistani military just south of the capital, Islamabad. Despite tight security inside the military area, attackers have frequently targeted army personnel, including intelligence and security officials, on their way to or from their jobs.

The city also was the scene of the assassination Dec. 27 of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. Her Pakistan People's Party, now led by her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, won the largest share of votes in the Feb. 18 elections.

Bhutto's party has said it will ally itself with the other main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Sharif, seconded less stridently by Zardari, is demanding Musharraf's ouster and the reinstatement of senior judges fired by the unpopular president late last year. The two parties, together with other parties, are engaged in coalition negotiations, and could name a prime ministerial candidate as soon as next week.

The new government will face an Islamic insurgency that has been particularly fierce in Pakistan's northwest, near the Afghan border. Western and Pakistani aid groups operating in the area often come under threat from radical groups.

Monday's attack in the town of Mansehra targeted the offices of Plan International, a Britain group that concentrates on community-based mother and child care.

Witnesses said as many as a dozen gunmen burst into the offices, firing at staffers with assault rifles before tossing grenades into the parking lot, setting vehicles ablaze. The building then caught fire.

In addition to the four staffers killed, eight people were injured, witnesses and officials said.

In the Rawalpindi attack, the bomber positioned himself on a busy road choked with midafternoon traffic and apparently waited for a target to approach, said the chief military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.

Baig was riding in his official vehicle, a black sedan, which was stopped at a red light when the attacker struck.

The general's bodyguard and driver were killed in the blast, along with five people in nearby cars. More than two dozen passersby were injured.

Suicide bombings have intensified in Pakistan over the last year, at a pace that dramatically quickened after the storming of a radical mosque in the capital in July by government commandos. More than 100 people died in that assault, and radical groups swore to take revenge on the government and security forces.

Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said the bomber in the attack Monday in Rawalpindi was believed to be a teenager. Radical madrasas, or religious schools, have been prime recruiting grounds for militant groups.

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laura.king@latimes.com

Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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