ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s top court began hearing challenges on Monday to an amnesty order that could deepen political tensions in a nuclear-armed country already facing pressure to fight Taliban militants on several fronts.
An attack by a suicide bomber killed nine people outside a court in Peshawar, highlighting relentless security troubles in Pakistan, an ally that Washington needs to help fight the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Doubts are growing that President Asif Ali Zardari can survive in the long-term, let alone lead the charge against Islamist fighters who have demonstrated they can penetrate security near the headquarters of the all-powerful military.
Some of Zardari’s closest aides may face revived corruption charges depending on the ruling of the Supreme Court, which took up legal challenges to an amnesty order granted to about 8,000 people, including the interior and defense ministers.
The politically charged issue could distract the government from a crackdown on the Pakistani Taliban.
Peshawar has suffered the most from retaliatory bombings that have killed hundreds of people since October, when the army launched a major offensive in South Waziristan, part of a region seen as a global militant hub.
Another suicide bomber struck the northwestern city on Monday.
“The bomber got down off an auto-rickshaw and rushed toward the gates of the court. He detonated the explosives strapped to his body when our men pointed their rifles to stop him from getting into the court,” said Peshawar police chief Liaquat Ali.
Rescuers collected body parts after the blast, while six cars were engulfed in flames outside the courthouse.
Pakistan’s military, once a staunch supporter of Afghan militants in their fight against Soviet occupation in the 1980s, now faces brazen Taliban insurgents on its own soil.
Pakistan’s priority is defeating the Taliban at home, but the task has been complicated by U.S. pressure to root out fighters who cross the border to Afghanistan to attack U.S. troops.
President Barack Obama sent a clear message to Pakistan last week in his speech outlining plans to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Pakistan, he said, must not allow its territory to be used as a sanctuary for militants.
But Pakistan’s military, which sets national security policy and has great influence on decisions on Afghanistan, cannot afford to let its guard down in the fight against the Pakistani Taliban.
Last week suicide bombers and gunmen climbed over a wall and attacked a mosque near the military headquarters in the city of Rawalpindi, officials said. More than 40 people were killed.
Pakistan has little time to count its losses. Fresh questions are swirling over the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and Western powers believe Islamabad is in the best position to answer them.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said on Monday the al Qaeda leader was not in Pakistan. Experts have long believed he is hiding in the lawless frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“According to our intelligence, Osama bin Laden, he is not in Pakistan. If someone knows about his whereabouts, tell us and we ourselves will take action. We are quite competent,” he said.
Washington has not had any good intelligence on his whereabouts in years, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.
Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, cannot be prosecuted whatever the outcome of the amnesty case because of presidential immunity.
But the re-opening of files could further tarnish his image as the opposition steps up demands for government figures protected by the decree to resign. Zardari’s government last month was forced to abandon plans to get parliamentary approval for the amnesty in the face of objections from a coalition partner and the opposition.
“This is a law of the jungle,” Qazi Hussain Ahmed, an Islamist party opposition leader, told reporters outside the court. The hearing is likely to last for weeks.
The amnesty was introduced by former President Pervez Musharraf under a plan to bring Bhutto back from self-imposed exile under a power-sharing pact. Bhutto returned in October 2007, but she was assassinated just weeks later. (Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider and Faris Ali; Editing by Alex Richardson)