KARACHI (AFP) – Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf faced new calls for his resignation after a bomb killed 10 people in this teeming port city ahead of key February elections.
The blast tore through a street market as Musharraf was visiting Karachi, with officials saying it was intended to sow fear ahead of the February 18 polls, already delayed once by the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, was also in the city of 12 million people but there was no suggestion either man was targeted.
Opposition officials called for the ex-general to resign in the wake of the latest of dozens of bombings that have rocked the nuclear-armed US ally over the past 12 months, claiming more than 800 lives.
“The rulers must admit their failure and quit,” said Raja Zafar-ul Haq, chairman of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
He said the government’s weakness was encouraging militant violence.
“The bombings have destabilised the economy and tarnished the country’s image. There are people who are trying to destabilise the country but the government is doing nothing to deal with them,” he said.
Sharif, the man ousted by Musharraf in a military coup in 1999, has repeatedly called for the president’s resignation since returning to the country from exile in November.
Police were on high alert in Karachi and thousands of paramilitary forces were fanning out across the city, Pakistan’s largest, officials said.
“We have deployed 10,000 personnel at all sensitive points and installations,” Paramilitary Rangers spokesman Captain Mohammad Fazal said, adding that another 4,000 were on standby.
The blast Monday evening ripped through a busy intersection outside a factory as workers were buying food on their way home.
“There was no specific target, it was just meant to kill ordinary civilians. The terrorists chose a soft target to spread panic and terrorise society,” interior ministry spokesman Brigadier Javed Cheema said.
Officials said the bloodshed was meant to force the government to push back the elections again, a move that could further undermine stability in the Islamic republic of 120 million people.
In another incident on Monday, a crudely made bomb went off in the election office of a nationalist party in the northwestern city of Peshawar, wounding one person, police said.
A third bomb exploded in an open area of the southwestern industrial town of Hub, which borders Karachi, but caused no damage or casualties, police said.
Ex-general Musharraf has come under mounting criticism for failing to stem the growth of Islamic militancy fuelled by the US-led “war on terror” in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Seven Pakistani troops and 23 militants were killed in fighting in the border region on Monday. About 90,000 troops have been deployed to the tribal areas to battle Taliban and Al-Qaeda extremists based there.
Musharraf’s spokesman Rashid Qureshi quoted the president as saying the election schedule would not be changed again regardless of the violence.
“There will be no further change in the schedule for the coming elections and all speculation about such changes are incorrect,” Musharraf was quoted as telling officials in Sindh province.
It was the first bombing in Karachi since a double suicide attack on a parade to welcome Bhutto home from exile in October. Bhutto survived that attack but 139 other people were killed.
The opposition leader and two-time former prime minister was eventually killed in a gun and suicide bomb attack at an election rally in Rawalpindi on December 27. The government has blamed Al-Qaeda-linked militants.
Monday’s blast is already the third deadly bombing in Pakistan this year. The worst was a suicide attack in the eastern city of Lahore on Thursday that killed 16 policemen and four civilians.