Attacks in Pakistan kill at least 11 people
Shatter recent lull in violence; Surgeon general among the dead
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan - Two separate attacks in Pakistan killed at least 11 people yesterday, including the country's surgeon general, the highest-ranking military officer to die in an attack in years, according to government officials.
The first attack occurred in Rawalpindi, the garrison city located near Pakistan's capital, said Major General Athar Abbas, chief spokesman for the Pakistani army. A suicide bomber approached a cluster of cars stopped at an intersection in the city's center and detonated a vest laden with explosives.
The blast instantly killed Pakistan's surgeon general, Lieutenant General Mushtaq Ahmad Baig, his driver and his guard, Abbas said. Five other people were killed and 20 others were injured.
Abbas said Baig, a three-star army general and the principal of Pakistan's army medical college, was the highest-ranking officer killed since Pakistan joined the US-led war against terrorism in 2001. While acknowledging that it was a "targeted attack," Abbas cautioned that it was "too early to speculate" on whether Islamic extremists might have been behind it.
Within hours of the bombing, gunmen attacked the offices of an international aid organization in restive North-West Frontier province. The assailants opened fire on several workers at the offices of Plan International before detonating a grenade, said Mazhar-ul-Haq Kakakhel, a district police officer in the city of Mansehra.
Details of the attack remained unclear last night. According to a statement on Plan International's website, the gunmen used three "explosive devices," killing three staff members. Other reports said four had been killed.
The attacks yesterday marked the first major eruption of violence since Pakistan's leading opposition parties won last week's parliamentary elections and announced their intention to begin talks with Islamic extremists.
On Sunday, a top Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, declared through a spokesman his group's readiness to begin negotiating with the new government to end hostilities. But the promise came with a warning - that anything less than a sharp break from the policies of President Pervez Musharraf could have dire consequences.
"We want to make it clear to those politicians who are going to form the next government not to impose war on us, otherwise we will retaliate vigorously," Maulvi Omar, the spokesman, said in an interview.
Violence and instability in Pakistan have fueled widespread criticism of Musharraf, a former army chief who has struggled to curb extremism. The electoral victory for the opposition has led to speculation that the president, who was reelected last year, will soon resign. He has said repeatedly that he plans to serve out his five-year term.
The bomb blast in Rawalpindi shattered windows in several shops and set off a wave of panic as people tried to flee the scene.
Sayed Kashif Hussain, a 25-year-old currency exchange owner, was inside his store when the blast rattled his windows. "We were sitting inside eating lunch when we heard a loud explosion. We were very, very terrified, and when we came outside we saw a lot of people lying injured and dead," Hussain said.
Several who knew Baig said he seemed an unlikely target for assassination. An eye specialist and 32-year army veteran, he was a father of three and well known as a religious man.
Unlike some high-ranking military officials who traveled with heavy security details, he was typically accompanied only by his driver and a single guard, according to many who knew him.