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Five killed in bomb attacks at Pakistan university

The attacks at International Islamic University in Islamabad are believed to be aimed at eroding support for the government's military campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

October 21, 2009|Alex Rodriguez

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — After unleashing a vicious wave of attacks on high-profile security buildings and crowded marketplaces in Pakistan this month, militants set their sights Tuesday on one of the capital's schools. Two near-simultaneous suicide bomb attacks on an Islamic university killed five people and wounded 22.

The assault on an academic building and a women's cafeteria came on the fourth day of a long-awaited military offensive to uproot the Taliban and Al Qaeda from their stronghold in South Waziristan, a rugged and largely ungoverned region along the Afghan border.

Pakistani military commanders say 30,000 troops have been steadily advancing from three directions into territory held by the Taliban, killing 90 militants as of Tuesday.

The Taliban has put up fierce resistance, killing 13 troops since the offensive began early Saturday, officials said.

Authorities had received threats that schools in Islamabad and its twin city, Rawalpindi, might be targeted for attacks, and on Monday several schools in both cities shut down. But the International Islamic University, a sprawling campus that includes many foreigners among its 15,000 students, remained open.

The first blast occurred at a two-story, red-brick building that houses the women's cafeteria. Witnesses said as many as 70 female students were inside when the bomber detonated the explosives at the main entrance.

"It felt like the earth shook, and then there was fire, smoke and broken glass everywhere," said Nida Sana, 23, an economics student who was seated with five friends at the back of the cafeteria. "I never saw the bomber, but after the blast I saw dead bodies of girls, badly mutilated."

Saiqa Asim, 37, a cafeteria cashier, said family members had urged her not to go to work because of the threats that other schools in the city had received. "I told them, 'Maybe other schools are shut, but ours is open, so I have to go,' " Asim said.

"Terrorism is everywhere in Pakistan -- this is an unending wave of terror," Asim added, standing a couple of hundred yards from the building's scorched entrance. "I pray that God makes these people return to the right path."

Witnesses said that about 30 seconds after the blast at the cafeteria, a second explosion tore through a second-floor hallway at an Islamic studies building housing classrooms and faculty offices.

Zia Uddin, an Islamic studies student, said he was in the hallway talking on his cellphone to a friend about the cafeteria attack when a suicide bomber set off a blast about 12 yards away.

Uddin said there were about 10 students in the hallway, most of them standing outside the office of Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, chairman of the Sharia law studies program. Ul-Haq was not there at the time.

The blast tore a 4-foot-wide hole in the hallway wall. Broken glass and smoldering wood littered the bloodstained floor.

"I was calling my friend about the first blast, and then the second blast knocked me to the ground and I fell unconscious," Uddin said from an Islamabad hospital bed where he was recovering from back and neck injuries. "When I awoke, I saw parts of bodies scattered here and there."

Although several students described security at the campus as weak, they said it was important for the university to remain open to send a message to militants that everyday life in Pakistan won't grind to a halt.

"Yes, it's unstable here," said Anam Amjed Abbasi, 21, a business administration student who left the cafeteria five minutes before the blast. "But it's important for us to not take a step back, to not run away."

The bombings were the latest in a wave of militant attacks that experts believe represents a strategy aimed at sowing panic across the country and eroding support for the military operation in South Waziristan.

In the days leading up to the offensive, militants killed more than 175 people in a series of commando-style raids and suicide bomb attacks in Islamabad; the garrison city of Rawalpindi; the country's cultural capital, Lahore; and the city of Peshawar in the northwest.

The boldest attack occurred in Rawalpindi on Oct. 10, when a team of militants raided the country's equivalent of the Pentagon. They took 42 people hostage before special forces captured one of the hostage-takers and killed the rest. The attack left 23 people dead.

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alex.rodriguez@latimes.com

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