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Suicide Bomb in Pakistan Raises Fresh Fears

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

A suicide bombing in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, has killed at least 16 people. The attack occurred near an outdoor stage where the country's suspended chief judge was to address members of Pakistan's opposition parties. No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but speculation across the city is of course considerable.

We go now to NPR's Philip Reeves, who is in Islamabad. Good morning, Philip.

PHILIP REEVES: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: Any idea who carried out this attack?

REEVES: Well, opinions vary on this. Theories are flying thick and fast. Many people here see it as part of the current violent backlash by Islamist militants who were enraged by the many deaths caused by last week's storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad by government forces. And the question that they're grappling with is whether this backlash will eventually die away or whether this is a larger sustained attempt by religious extremists to cause division and chaos and bring down Musharraf.

Some of the victims of last night's bombing were from Benazir Bhutto's opposition party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, who were at the rally supporting the chief justice. And some of them believe this was an attack on that party carried out because Bhutto supported the government's crackdown on the Red Mosque.

WERTHEIMER: This attack is only the latest violence in Pakistan. Do you think the government is going to react with something as serious as martial law?

REEVES: Well, Bhutto herself has actually said the bombing is the work of what she calls a hidden hand, which is trying to create a pretext for canceling the forthcoming elections and imposing emergency rule. And there's been speculation for weeks in Islamabad now that Musharraf is planning just that - emergency rule. But he has repeatedly said that he doesn't intend to do that.

WERTHEIMER: Philip, a new report by intelligence agencies in the United States says that al-Qaida is regenerating in safe havens in northwest Pakistan. Have you had any reaction to that report?

REEVES: Well, for the record, the Pakistan government has dismissed it as absurd. They say that no country has done more than Pakistan to try to flush out al-Qaida. There have been hundreds of arrests over recent years. And they deny any suggestion that al-Qaida is in Pakistan and say that if this is what U.S. intelligence thinks, they should share it with Pakistan, which is after all their partner.

WERTHEIMER: Well, what is the situation in that volatile area? Islamist militants recently renounced a cease-fire there.

REEVES: That's right. And the situation is getting pretty ugly. I mean, there was a lot of bloodshed this weekend when more than 70 people - many of them police and soldiers - were killed in three suicide bombings. And we're just getting reports in now of an attack on a military convoy carrying Pakistani forces in the tribal region of North Waziristan. And these reports speak of at least a dozen killed.

Musharraf's been moving troops into the area, where Islamist militancy, as you say, is at its strongest. And he's being urge on in doing so by the U.S. But there is deep disagreement in Pakistan about whether this is the right approach. For example, the Daily Times, a respected English language newspaper, reports this morning that people within Pakistan's security agencies think that this will only inflame a deeply volatile situation there.

WERTHEIMER: Philip Reeves, thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Philip Reeves in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.