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. They
vowed more violence.
Islamist attacks have raised fears for the future of the nuclear-armed U.S. ally, also beset by economic problems and chronic political wrangling.
But in a move that should ease political infighting, President Asif Ali Zardari called on parliament to approve quickly reforms that will see him give up his main powers.
The assault on the tightly guarded consulate was launched hours after the bomb blast at a rally of supporters of an ethnic Pashtun-based political party staunchly opposed to the militants.
The attacks underscored the danger posed by militants after a year of military offensives which have dealt the Islamists significant setbacks.
“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,” Peshawar resident Siraj Afridi told Reuters.
A Pakistani intelligence official described the assault as a well-planned suicide attack. The White House condemned the attack while the U.S. embassy said both of Monday’s incidents reflected the militants’ desperation.
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.
The blasts threw clouds of white smoke into the sky and residents said soldiers had cordoned off the scene and ordered residents to remain indoors. 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.
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.
Earlier, a suspected suicide bomber blew himself up at a rally of the Awami National Party (ANP), in the Lower Dir district, 80 km (50 miles) northeast of Peshawar, killing 38 people, a hospital doctor said.
The ANP, which heads a coalition government in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and is also a member of the 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.
Zardari, in an address to a joint session of the two-chamber parliament in Islamabad, said all parties had risen above partisan politics in an unprecedented show of solidarity in agreeing to the constitutional reforms.
“I call upon the parliament to pass the eighteenth constitutional amendment bill without delay,” Zardari said.
The amendments, which include the transfer to the prime minister of the presidential power to dismiss parliament, appoint military chiefs, judges and the election commissioner, should go some way to silencing Zardari’s critics. Many had assumed he would never agree to the changes.
Zardari, widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, came to power after February 2008 elections that ended nine years of military rule.
The biggest danger for Zardari remains old graft charges that were revived when the Supreme Court threw out a 2007 amnesty introduced by former president Pervez Musharraf as part of a proposed power-sharing deal with Bhutto.
The Supreme Court has called for the old cases be taken up.
In an veiled warning to the judiciary, Zardari called on all to uphold the supremacy of the constitution and for no one to overstep their authority. “This requires that each pillar of the state work in its constitutional limits, and does not trample on the domain of others,” he said.
Zardari also called for “an honorable and peaceful settlement of all outstanding disputes” with old rival India.
Additional reporting by Faris Ali, Kamran Haider, Zeeshan Haider, Faisal Aziz; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Ron Popeski