Islamabad also says its ongoing military campaign in the autonomous tribal agencies along the border with Afghanistan is forcing Islamic militants to flee to urban areas. But one South Asian terrorism expert questioned that claim today as Afghan leader Hamid Karzai traveled to Islamabad to discuss how to strengthen the campaign along the border.
Pakistani Interior Minister Faisal Salh Hayyat said the 10 Al-Qaeda suspects arrested by authorities earlier this month had wanted to destabilize the country and weaken President Musharraf's government by creating widespread unrest.
Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said on 21 August that Pakistani authorities infiltrated the terrorist network in time to prevent simultaneous suicide-bomb attacks the group had planned during the country's Independence Day celebrations on 14 August. "These people wanted to carry out terrorist attacks in Rawalpindi and Islamabad," he said. "They wanted to create a bloody environment on Independence Day in which they wanted to take lives of hundreds of people."
Ahmed said the targets included the U.S. Embassy, President Musharaff's residence, the building of the army's chief of staff and the so-called Lal Haveli building -- a historic landmark in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, where large crowds gather each year to watch the Independence Day fireworks.
Ahmed also said security agencies seized a large cache of weapons and ammunition -- including dozens of bombs, detonators, grenades, rocket launchers, and electronic-surveillance devices. They also found belts used to strap explosives to a suicide attacker's body. Ahmed said authorities are searching for four more suspects, including one man that he said had brought weapons from Afghanistan for use in the attacks. "We discovered a number of weapons and we are looking for more people," he said.
The alleged plot is the latest revelation about threats against Musharraf, who abandoned Pakistan's support of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. Last December, Musharraf narrowly escaped two bombings within 10 days that killed 17 people.
Since then, Musharraf has stepped up Pakistan's efforts against terrorism. In the spring, Pakistani forces launched military operations against suspected Al-Qaeda fighters sheltering along the border with Afghanistan. During the last five weeks, officials in Islamabad say they captured more than 60 suspected terrorists -- including key members of Al-Qaeda.
"I think this is just an attempt by the military administration to say that the tribal people are on the run and that they are seeking shelter in the cities. I don't think it's that serious at all." - Bedi
Ahmed has warned that Islamic militants may be trying to seek accommodations in the country's urban areas. He said the ongoing military campaign in the tribal agency of South Waziristan is forcing many Al-Qaeda fighters to flee their hiding places there.
But Rahul Bedi, a New Delhi-based terrorism expert who writes for the London-based "Jane's Terrorism and Security Monitor," told RFE/RL today that he is suspicious about those claims. "The Pakistani military, in fact, over the last several months has suffered several military setbacks and defeats at the hands of [tribal fighters]," Bedi said. "And I think this is just an attempt by the military administration to say that the tribal people are on the run and that they are seeking shelter in the cities. I don't think it's that serious at all."
Bedi explained that by issuing such warnings, officials may be trying to insulate themselves against criticism in case there is a major terrorist attack in the near future. "It is to Pakistan's advantage to whip up this kind of sentiment because the military has suffered several setbacks," he saaid. "This is a kind of insurance policy that is used not only in Pakistan, but of course, the entire South Asian subcontinent to whip up a kind of fear psychosis. If something takes place, then they have the fall-back option of saying, 'We warned you.' And if nothing happens, then they say, 'We took adequate measures to prevent something from going wrong.' Either way, it's a win-win situation for the establishment of the authorities."
Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai arrived in Islamabad today for a two-day visit that is expected to include talks about how the two countries can bolster the military campaign along their common border.
Afghan officials have accused Islamabad of not doing enough to stop hundreds of Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from finding sanctuary in Pakistan's autonomous tribal regions. Pakistan denies aiding the militants and says the latest arrests are proof of its commitment to eradicating terrorism.