ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s plane was fired on as it took off on Friday from a military airfield in Rawalpindi, an intelligence officer said, contradicting official denials.
Musharraf’s plane arrived safely in the southwestern town of Turbat, where the president visited flood victims. The military denied there had been any attack. But an intelligence officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there had been an unsuccessful attempt on Musharraf’s life. “There was an attempt, that was missed,” said the officer, who declined to be identified.
U.S. ally Musharraf, who came to power in a military coup in 1999, survived two assassination attempts by al Qaeda-linked militants in Rawalpindi in December 2003.
A Reuters photographer saw two large guns mounted on the roof of a two-storey house in the congested area close to the airport, and a neighbour said he heard the firing. One appeared to be a long barreled anti-aircraft gun and the other a light machine gun. They were placed between large satellite dishes and a water tank of the flat-roofed house, located directly under the the flight path close to the runway. A low wall ran round the perimeter of the roof.
Security is normally deployed in the area ahead of the president’s flights, the timings of which are generally kept secret.
Neighbour Arshad Mehmood said the house had been vacant and up for rent, though a couple with two children had visited it the previous night.
Security forces have cordoned off the area around the house in the garrison town next to the capital, Islamabad, and the owner, a shopkeeper, had been detained.
According to some accounts given by television reporters a rocket was also fired at the plane. But the Pakistan military was adamant there had been no attack. “There was no firing at the president’s plane. He is in Turbat,” an army spokesman said.
Musharraf, who came to power in a military coup in 1999, has been a hated figure among Pakistani militant groups since he abandoned support for the Taliban and sought peace with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir.
The reports of a fresh assassination attempt came as Pakistani security forces laid siege to a mosque in Islamabad where a radical cleric and hundreds of followers were holed up after clashes on Tuesday.
At least 19 people have been killed so far in the clashes and bloody stand-off.
Washington has depended on General Musharraf to help crush Osama bin Laden’s network, the remnants of which have been regrouping in Pakistan’s tribal areas on the Afghan border.
The Pakistan army’s support is crucial also to the success of a NATO counter-insurgency campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Coincidentally, the plane of Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, another Pakistani president who came from the military and was allied to the United States, was fired on as it overflew the same neighbourhood in the 1980s.
Zia later died in a mysterious aircrash, along with the U.S. ambassador. There has long been speculation enemies inside the military assassinated him.