March 16, 2008 / 5:26 PM / 10 years ago

Ex-pats in Pakistan uneasy after restaurant bomb

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By Simon Cameron-Moore

ISLAMABAD, March 16 (Reuters) - The morning after a bomb attack on an Italian restaurant in Islamabad, foreigners living in the Pakistani capital woke up on Sunday to the possibility that al Qaeda inspired militants had changed strategy to target them.

Pakistan has reeled from a wave of violence, including suicide attacks, but the militants had focused on Pakistani security forces and political leaders, and Westerners and other foreigners have been mostly spared until now.

But the Saturday night attack on the Luna Caprese restaurant, a favourite hang out for diplomats, journalists and aid workers living in a city that has little in the way of night life, sent shudders through the expatriate community.

One Turkish woman, an aid worker, was killed by the bomb planted in the garden dining area, and at least 12 other people were wounded in the attack, including five Americans, some if not all of whom worked at the U.S. embassy, along with a Briton, a Canadian, a Japanese, a Chinese and at three Pakistanis.

A spokesman for Pakistani Taliban militants claimed responsibility for the bomb, the latest in a surge of attacks that began in July after troops stormed a radical mosque complex in Islamabad.

"This changes everything," said Shane Brady, an Irish aid worker based in the city, adding there were plenty of soft targets for militants to strike.

"The message they seem to be sending is that they want foreigners out," he said, adding he would be more cautious but not change his behaviour too much.

It was too early say if the attack was a one-off or was the start of a trend, but it sent a ripple of unease rather than a wave of panic through foreigners, whose hired security advisers regularly warn them about the risks.

U.S. diplomats have long been regarded as most at risk. Diplomat David Foy was killed by a suicide car bomber outside the U.S. consulate in Karachi in March 2006.

REDUCING THE RISKS

"Islamabad doesn’t have that safe, passive feeling anymore," said Bettina Schunter, a U.N. employee, who had been shopping across the road when the blast occurred.

Schunter felt the attack had probably rocked foreigners out of any complacency over the potential dangers, but sensed people were unsure how to react to the development, beyond avoiding restaurants and shopping areas known as haunts for foreigners.

"There are no rules now," she said. "I mean you can make the rules -- don’t go here, don’t go there and limit your risk probability, but you still don’t know."

A city of little over a million people, Islamabad feels smaller, with quiet, tree-lined roads and houses bedecked with bougainvillaea in posher neighbourhoods.

During increasingly frequent security scares, police and paramilitary troops put up road blocks at junctions and key entry points into the city.

But compared with other parts of Pakistan, particularly nearby North West Frontier Province, there are fewer bomb attacks in Islamabad, though the neighbouring garrison town of Rawalpindi has suffered a spate.

A suicide bomber killed a security guard outside a hotel early last year, and another suicide attack killed 16 people in July at an opposition political party meeting for a judge President Pervez Musharraf had tried to fire.

Russell Saunders, a Briton working for a telecommunications firm, said he still expected his wife to join him next month to end "a sad and lonely" period working in Islamabad.

"These threats exist of course, we’re all aware of the situations," said Saunders. "We know we need to be more vigilant."



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