Sat, Sep 15, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Pakistan probes suicide attack links to al-Qaeda


Pakistan yesterday investigated links between al-Qaeda and a suicide blast that killed 15 commandos from an elite unit tasked with tackling Osama bin Laden's extremist network, officials said.

The attack on a mess hall at a high-security military camp followed two days of deadly clashes in Pakistan's lawless tribal zone along the Afghan border and coincided with a visit by US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte.

It targeted a special forces group to which military ruler President Pervez Musharraf still belongs and was the latest in a string of high-profile attacks on Pakistan's military and intelligence services.

"Only al-Qaeda is capable of carrying out such a daring attack and with such precision and planning," a senior intelligence official said of the strike on the camp in Tarbela, about 70km northwest of Islamabad. "It was a high security, well-protected area where the bomber managed to enter and blew himself up."

He said authorities were probing whether the attack was linked to a video by bin Laden last week calling for a "caravan" of Muslim martyrs and a recent statement by his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri urging the overthrow of Musharraf.

Chief military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad confirmed 15 commandos had been killed and 29 wounded at the Tarbela camp.

"The terrorists' space is being curtailed by the security forces and they are trying to strike back," he said. "They are killing innocent people to create fear but our resolve to rid society of extremist forces is unshakeable."

A senior military official said that the target was "the Special Operation Task Force, which has been drawn from the elite Special Services Group commandos to carry out operations against al-Qaeda."

Musharraf set up the unit in 2002 to hunt down al-Qaeda militants who fled into Pakistan's rugged tribal areas after the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001 in Afghanistan.

The president -- who is also the head of the country's armed forces -- condemned the "unfortunate incident."

"Such cowardly acts of killing innocent people cannot be left unpunished," he said, according to the official Associated Press of Pakistan.

Meanwhile, former premier Benazir Bhutto can return to Pakistan from exile but will have to face corruption cases against her, the government said, as her party prepared to announce her arrival date yesterday.

Pakistani newspapers cited unnamed party sources as saying Bhutto will come back next month.

Bhutto, who is in talks with President General Pervez Musharraf that could see them share power after elections, would not be deported in the manner of another former premier, Nawaz Sharif, a government spokesman said. Sharif was expelled hours after he flew in on Monday.

"Nawaz Sharif's case was different. He went back to Saudi Arabia because of an undertaking he had with the Saudi government," Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim said. "She [Bhutto] was always allowed to come back."

Asked about pending corruption cases against Bhutto, he said: "It's for the law to take its own course. Everybody has to face cases against them and the same applies to her."

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