ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani authorities warned more suicide bombers were stalking Islamabad, a day after 14 people were killed in a blast near a mosque regarded as a symbol of Islamist resistance to U.S. ally President Pervez Musharraf.
“I feel very insecure for myself, for my children and for my city. I never thought my city would be like this,” Fareha Ansar, a former high school principal, said on Saturday, after the second suicide attack in the capital this month.
A wave of suicide attacks, roadside bombs and shootings have killed more than 180 people, in a militant campaign triggered by the storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad earlier this month to crush a Taliban-style movement.
The government reopened the mosque this week, but trouble broke out on Friday as hundreds of followers of radical clerics briefly seized the mosque before being dispersed by police.
A suicide bomber, described as a bearded man in his 20s, struck at a nearby restaurant shortly afterwards.
The only extra police evident on Saturday were stationed around the now “indefinitely closed” Red Mosque, or Lal Masjid.
Part of the problem for security forces is that they are the main target for attacks. Eight of Friday’s victims were police.
Police foiled a car bomb plot on Friday in Bannu, a city at the gateway to North Waziristan, a tribal region regarded as a hotbed of support for the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Musharraf has to contend with more challenges than just the militant threat in Pakistani cities, and pressure from the United States to act against al Qaeda nests in North Waziristan, as he struggles to hold on to power.
A Supreme Court ruling last week to reinstate a chief justice who Musharraf had spent four months trying to oust augured ill for his plan to get re-elected by the sitting assemblies before their dissolution in November without running into serious constitutional challenges.
Having become increasingly isolated politically over the past few months, and virtually silent since the court decision went against him last week, Musharraf was in Abu Dhabi on Friday, reportedly for secret talks with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto about a deal to secure him a second term.
Officials denied the television reports on Friday, but newspapers on Saturday said the two held their first face-to-face talks since Musharraf came to power in a coup eight years ago, though his emissaries have been speaking to Bhutto for months.
Musharraf was in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, and expected back in Pakistan on Sunday.
Mutual distrust has surrounded contacts with Bhutto, and a deal remains fraught with problems, though both share a vision of turning Pakistan into a moderate, progressive nation.
Living in self-exile, Bhutto has seen her bargaining position strengthen as Musharraf’s grip on power weakens.
General Musharraf wants to be re-elected by the sitting assemblies while still army chief. Bhutto says he should get re-elected after parliamentary elections due around the end of the year, and that he should stand as a civilian.
While Musharraf would be ready to give her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) a share of power, he would prefer the strong-willed Bhutto to stay on the sidelines, according to government sources.
U.S. and British officials have spoken of hope that political moderates can come together at the centre of Pakistan’s fractured politics to form a bulwark against a rising Islamist tide.
With additional reporting by Kamran Haider