French and American investigators are in Karachi today searching for evidence about a suicide bombing there yesterday that killed 14 people, including 11 French naval engineers who were working to improve the strength of Pakistan's navy. RFE/RL examines the attack in relation to the French mission, as well as Islamabad's support for the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.
Prague, 9 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Although no group has claimed responsibility for the suicide bomb attack in Karachi yesterday that killed 11 French naval workers and three other people, Pakistani investigators say intelligence reports from France and the United States indicate a connection with the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.
U.S. investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation are searching today in Karachi for additional evidence about who was behind the attack. French investigators also have rushed to Pakistan along with French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie.
The French defense minister arrived in Karachi today and has been meeting with some of the 23 French specialists who were injured but survived yesterday's attack.
As the investigation moves forward, General Pervez Musharraf's military government is reassessing how well-established the Al-Qaeda network is in Pakistan.
Authorities in Islamabad say the attack is linked to their support for the U.S.-led campaign against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
In particular, Pakistani authorities are trying to determine exactly how difficult it will be to eliminate Al-Qaeda operatives from their country -- a state that, until recently, had overtly supported the activities of the Taliban and other Islamic fundamentalist extremists.
But despite Islamabad's declarations, it is not just Musharraf's cooperation with the United States that has been highlighted by the attack. Yesterday's bombing also has focused international attention on the role France is playing to help build Pakistan's naval forces in the Arabian Sea.
All 11 of the French naval engineers killed yesterday had been working several months in Karachi for France's state-owned Direction des Constructions Navales.
The French Defense Ministry has admitted that it sent the maritime construction firm to Pakistan in order to bring the country's naval forces up to the standards of its main rival in the region -- neighboring India.
That much of the French mission was confirmed by U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher's announcement yesterday about the attack:
"A car bombing in Karachi destroyed a shuttle bus outside the Sheraton Hotel. Casualties were reported at 14 dead, many of whom were French nationals working on a project for Pakistan's military," Boucher said.
"The Washington Post" reported today that the French engineers were helping Pakistan to improve its submarine fleet so that it can launch nuclear weapons.
But that report has been flatly denied by French Defense Ministry spokesman Jean-Francois Bureau. He said there has been no cooperation between Pakistan and France on building the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons.
Bureau said Pakistan's entire submarine fleet was built by France and that none of the submarines are able to fire nuclear weapons.
French President Jacques Chirac condemned yesterday's bombing as "a murderous, cowardly terrorist attack." He also accepted an invitation from Musharraf to dispatch counterterrorism experts to Karachi.
Boucher said the United States is also ready to help Islamabad investigate and, if asked, to help combat terrorist groups within Pakistan.
"We are prepared to provide whatever assistance Pakistani authorities might require if they request any, and point out that the United States and Pakistan cooperate very closely on counterterrorism," Boucher said.
For his part, Musharraf has promised a tough new campaign to eliminate international terrorism in Pakistan. Musharraf previously had alleged involvement by New Delhi in a series of earlier terrorist attacks within Pakistan. Significantly, Musharraf said that yesterday's attack was an attempt to "destabilize Pakistan internally" rather than to slow the growth of its naval forces in the Arabian Sea.
"We believe that this [attack in Karachi] has been perpetrated by someone who wants to destabilize Pakistan internally. They don't want to see the economic development, economic stability coming into Pakistan. They want to drive a wedge and weaken the resolve of Pakistan in its actions against international terrorism," Musharraf said.
Nevertheless, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar hinted at the possibility of wider geopolitical motives. He said those responsible for planning the attack would be detained as criminals who are working against Pakistan's national interests.
"It's a crime against the Pakistan-France friendship. It's a crime against the national interests of our country. We will protect our interests. We will hunt the criminals and we will bring them to justice," Sattar said.
Despite the promised crackdown, Pakistani newspapers today are criticizing the failure of Musharraf to control the deteriorating security situation in the country.
The English-language newspaper "Dawn" wrote today that a "new murderous and awesome wave" of terrorism is sweeping Pakistan. It said terrorism has become a major challenge to the authority of Musharraf -- who seized power through a bloodless coup in 1999 and is expected to stay on for five more years as the country's self-declared president by virtue of a widely criticized referendum conducted earlier this month.
The paper also said that Musharraf owes it to the people of Pakistan to prove by action -- and not merely by words -- that he is capable of bringing an end to terrorism.
The grassroots support for Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan -- particularly in the south of the country and in the tribal areas that border Afghanistan -- is a reality of domestic politics that Musharraf must constantly consider.
For example, the latest international operation to root out remnants of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan has been focusing on the tribal region along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
But despite growing evidence that U.S. and British ground forces are now operating within the tribal areas of Pakistan as part of "Operation Snipe" -- particularly, near the border with the Afghan province of Khost -- Musharraf has repeatedly attempted to downplay the significance of foreign troops in his country.
Only recently, following reports of clashes with U.S. and British forces inside of Pakistan, has Musharraf admitted the presence of "a small number" of the foreign troops.
And as recently as last weekend, Musharraf was downplaying the importance of Al-Qaeda fighters within Pakistan. "If you think that they have come here and taken over whole chunks of territory of Pakistan and established themselves, no, this is just out of the question. This is not possible at all. Zero possibility."
Musharraf also said last weekend that Pakistan's military forces are capable of preventing Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from crossing into Pakistan from Afghanistan.
"What is possible is a small number of [Al-Qaeda] infiltrators [are coming into Pakistan], because it's a mountainous region [on the border with Afghanistan]. [Pakistani troops] have plugged all the gaps, we have plugged the routes, but it is impossible to plug the entire area," Musharraf said.
Indeed, observers say the need for Musharraf to demonstrate firm action against Al-Qaeda inside of Pakistan will only increase if further evidence on yesterday's bombing supports the initial reports of Al-Qaeda involvement.