Gunmen attack U.S. consulate in Pakistan

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Militants using a car bomb and firing weapons attacked the U.S. consulate in the Pakistani city of Peshawar on Monday hours after a suicide bomber killed 38 people elsewhere in the northwest, officials said.

Pakistani Taliban militants claimed responsibility for the attack on the consulate, in which eight people including three militants were killed but no one in the mission was hurt, and vowed more violence.

The attacks underscore the danger posed by militants in nuclear-armed U.S. ally Pakistan after a year of military offensives which have dealt the Islamists significant setbacks.

The assault on the tightly guarded consulate came hours after the bomb blast at a rally of supporters of an ethnic Pashtun-based political party staunchly opposed to the militants.

“I saw attackers in two vehicles. Some of them carried rocket-propelled grenades. They first opened fire at security personnel at the post near the consulate and then blasts went off,” city resident Siraj Afridi told Reuters.

A Pakistani intelligence official described the assault as a well-planned suicide attack.

The U.S. Embassy said Monday’s attacks reflected the militants’ desperation.

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“The coordinated attack involved a vehicle suicide bomb and terrorists attempting to enter the building using grenades and weapons fire,” the embassy said, adding two of its Pakistani guards were killed and several wounded.

U.S. diplomatic missions and staff have been attacked several times in Pakistan since the south Asian country threw its support behind the United States in a global campaign against militancy launched after the September 11, 2001, attacks on U.S. cities.

Dawn television showed shaky pictures of three men, apparently attackers, holding their arms up in surrender when a blast hit the area.

The blasts threw clouds of white smoke into the sky and residents said soldiers had cordoned off the scene and ordered people to remain in doors. Helicopters hovered overhead.

Pakistani Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq said by telephone from an undisclosed location his group was behind the attack.

“Americans are our enemies. We carried out the attack on their consulate in Peshawar. We plan more such attacks,” Tariq said, while denying responsibility for the earlier blast at the political party rally.

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Liaqat Ali, chief of police in Peshawar, which is the gateway to Afghanistan and has seen a string of bomb attacks over the past year, said the gunmen first attacked a security post on the approach to the consulate then set off a bomb at its gate.

Stock market dealers said the violence briefly brought some selling pressure but the main index closed 0.30 percent higher at 10,447.84 on foreign buying.

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Earlier, a suspected suicide bomber blew himself up at a rally of the Awami National Party (ANP), in the Lower Dir district, about 80 km (50 miles) northeast of Peshawar, killing 38 people, a hospital doctor said.

Police said the bomber tried to get into the ground where the ANP, which heads a coalition government in North West Frontier Province, was holding a meeting but he was stopped and blew himself up.

The ANP, which is also a member of the ruling federal coalition government, is a largely secular party and opposes the militants battling the state. Militants have attacked ANP gatherings before.

The meeting was called to celebrate the renaming of NWFP, which the party has long demanded. Under constitutional amendments expected to be approved in parliament this week, the province will be renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, in a bid to represent its dominant Pashtun population.

The long-awaited constitutional amendments, which will also transfer President Asif Ali Zardari’s sweeping powers to the prime minister, are due to be taken up in the National Assembly on Tuesday.

The amendments should ease opposition to the unpopular Zardari and promote political stability, analysts say.

Zardari is due to address parliament later on Monday in the capital, Islamabad, where security has been stepped up for the session.

Additional reporting by Kamran Haider, Zeeshan Haider, Faisal Aziz; Writing by Robert Birsel