Pakistan Toughens on Militants ; Assassination Bids Spur Tight Security before Key Summit

By Owais Tohid Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 29, 2003 | Go to article overview

Pakistan Toughens on Militants ; Assassination Bids Spur Tight Security before Key Summit


Owais Tohid Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The latest in a spate of assassination attempts against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has turned the battle of wits between the general and Islamic extremists into a battle for survival.

The Christmas Day attack occurred less than two weeks after another attempt on Mr. Musharraf's life - and just one day after Musharraf announced that he had cemented a deal with hard-line Islamic opponents that would keep him in power until 2007 if he stepped down as military chief.

The escalation in attacks is likely to harden the government's stance against suspected Islamic extremists - and puts security issues squarely at the center of Musharraf's agenda as Pakistan prepares to host a key South Asian leaders' summit next week. That gathering is seen as an opportunity for Musharraf to build on recent peace overtures with rival India's prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee - something that has angered extremists.

"Now lines are drawn between him and extremists. Musharraf is a commando and will get strength from these attacks. He will take bold steps and move harder against militants," says analyst Talat Masood, a former Army lieutenant general. "These groups might see Musharraf's policies as detrimental to their interests. They want to eliminate him, thinking that the next guy will be too scared to check their activities."

Mr. Musharraf narrowly escaped the Dec. 25 attack by two suicide bombers, who rammed explosives-packed trucks into his convoy in Rawalpindi, killing at least 15 people. The attacks mirrored a Dec. 14 explosion on a bridge in Rawalpindi that narrowly missed his motorcade.

The attacks have sent shudders through the Pakistani establishment because of concern about security leaks. The attacks took place near military headquarters, and the bombers had precise information on the timing of the president's movements. They also knew which of the two "dupe motorcades" was the president's.

"The big question is how the president's convoy is attacked twice within 11 days. It seems those behind the assassination bids have infiltrated our top security outfits or have somehow gained access to sensitive information," says analyst Tauseef Ahmed.

The increasingly aggressive attempts on Musharraf's life have sounded alarm bells in Washington. A key US ally in the war on terror, Musharraf withdrew Islamabad's support for the ousted Taliban militia and jihadis in Pakistan after Sept. 11, infuriating extremists and their supporters within the military. Musharraf's security forces have arrested more than 500 Al Qaeda suspects and turned most of them over to the United States.

About three months ago, Al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al- Zawahiri, in tapes broadcast over Middle East media, called on Muslims in Pakistan to overthrow Musharraf as part of "Islamic duty."

"It is now a battle of survival for the Islamic extremists who accuse Musharraf of betraying the cause of Islam and view the Taliban and Al Qaeda men as soldiers of Islam fighting against America," says a leading analyst, M. …

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