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Pakistan: Investigation Continues Into Musharraf Assassination Attempt

Pakistani security forces are investigating an assassination attempt on President Pervez Musharraf yesterday. A powerful bomb exploded moments after Musharraf's motorcade passed a bridge in Rawalpindi. The president was not injured in this latest attempt to kill him, and no one has claimed responsibility for the attack. RFE/RL looks at the motives that may be behind the event.

Prague, 15 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has escaped injury in the latest apparent assassination attempt against him.

A powerful bomb detonated shortly after his motorcade drove over a bridge yesterday in the northern city of Rawalpindi, near Islamabad. The president was passing through Rawalpindi after a visit to the southern city of Karachi. Whoever planted the explosive device beside the road had prior knowledge of the president's movements.

Musharraf has no doubt he was the target of the blast. He told Pakistani television: "There was an explosion just half a minute or one minute after we crossed [the Amar Chowk bridge]. I felt the explosion in my car. That is all that I know except, of course, that it was certainly a terrorist act and certainly it was me who was targeted."

In other comments to journalists, he blamed religious and sectarian extremists, saying that the greatest danger to Pakistan comes from internal rather than foreign sources.

This is the latest of several attempts to kill Musharraf since he assumed power in a military coup in October 1999. Only two months ago, three Islamic militants of the Al-Almi faction of the Harkat-ul Mujahedin were sentenced to long prison terms for trying to assassinate the president last year. After yesterday's attack, Musharraf took a philosophical view. "I am used to such incidents," he said. "They have happened before also. One doesn't get bothered. I think that God is great and one has to trust in God, and there's no problem."

Musharraf has increasingly become a target for Islamic militant groups since he turned against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and sided with the United States after the 11 September terror attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.

No one has claimed responsibility for yesterday's attempt. If Musharraf was the target, it is impossible to know at this stage whether the perpetrators are opposed to the president's stand against the Taliban or his stance concerning the dispute between Muslims and Hindus over the divided territory of Kashmir. The attackers could also have been angered by Musharraf's decision in November to close down six militant Islamic groups.

In Islamabad, Pakistani security analyst Talat Masood told Reuters that the death of the president would have created a power vacuum in the country, but nevertheless there are lessons to be learned from the incident.

"I think he [Musharraf] is playing a very key role, there is no doubt about that, and he is a very key player, both externally and internally at the moment. So his loss would be great. But nevertheless there is no such thing as indispensability, and so this is a lesson for Pakistan and for the present leadership that they should try to strengthen institutions rather than individuals," Masood said.

In Paris, French Islamic expert Olivier Roy says the attack is most probably connected with the Taliban's struggle against the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. He says that the Pakistani government finds itself in a quandary, trying to respond to such terror attacks.

"Of course, they are trying to find the extremists, but the government has always avoided a general crackdown on religious militants, the government does not want a direct confrontation [with them], so they deal as best they can, hoping that no terrorist attack will really succeed, but it is a very, very dangerous game," Roy said.

Roy says he does not feel that the capture by U.S. forces in Iraq of ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will change the balance of forces in Pakistan. "There is a strong anti-American feeling in Pakistan, but Saddam Hussein is not an Islamic hero, you know, I would say the religious extremists are closer to [Al-Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden than to Saddam Hussein," he said.

Roy went on to say that Pakistani militants who side with the ousted Taliban in Afghanistan are interested in ensuring that the political and economic situation of Afghanistan does not improve under the U.S.-led coalition. On the contrary, they are counting on a worsening of the situation there.

As for Kashmir, Roy said: "The real issue for Pakistan is Kashmir -- the problem for Musharraf is that he is stuck. If he makes some [diplomatic] opening towards India then he will be criticized by the religious militants. If he does not do anything, then Kashmir will still remain a sort of training ground for the extremists -- so it is an impossible situation."

Investigators have detained at least seven people for questioning following the Rawalpindi attack. At least three are police officers who were supposed to have been on duty at the bridge at the time.