ISLAMABAD,(Reuters) – Two suicide car bomb attacks killed at least 15 people on Saturday in the Pakistani garrison town of Rawalpindi, the military said.
The two blasts, on the eve of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s return from exile, heightened fears of insecurity as Pakistan heads towards a general election in early January amid political convulsions under emergency rule.
One car rammed a ministry of defence bus taking personnel to work at an intelligence service office, while another bomber blew up his car at a checkpoint outside army headquarters.
Islamist militants have waged a suicide bomb campaign since the army stormed the Red Mosque in the capital, Islamabad, to crush an armed radical movement.
In late October a suicide attacker killed seven people near President Pervez Musharraf’s army residence in Rawalpindi, which is next door to the capital.
The attack on the bus killed at least 15 people, while two soldiers were critically wounded by a car bomber who detonated explosives when they stopped him less than 100 metres from the main gates to the army’s General Headquarters. “Both were suicide attacks,” army spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad said. “There were 50 people sitting in the bus. Many are injured, many are OK,” he said.
Officials had earlier reported the death toll was 16.
Two security officials told Reuters on condition of anonymity that more than 35 people were killed, but there was no independent verification of the number of casualties.
After Saturday’s attack, police cordoned off the area and put up tents to obscure the view, but a Reuters witness saw the burnt-out bus just inside the gate of the intelligence service compound. “We could not see any bodies as the bus was all in flames. The wreckage of the bus and the car was all over the place,” said Wazir Gul Abbasi, owner of a three-storey hotel just opposite the intelligence office, saying there was a huge explosion.
Pakistan is still under emergency rule imposed by Musharraf three weeks ago in an apparent bid to safeguard his presidency from challenges to his re-election.
A purged Supreme Court has since dismissed those challenges and Musharraf is expected to be sworn in for a second 5-year term, this time as a civilian, next week.
Sharif, the prime minister deposed by Musharraf in a 1999 coup, plans to return to Pakistan from Saudi Arabian exile on Sunday, his brother Shahbaz Sharif told a Pakistani news channel.
General Musharraf, under intense criticism at home and abroad for imposing emergency rule three weeks ago, agreed to Sharif’s return in discussions with Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh this week, according to a leader of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League.
By returning on Sunday, Sharif will get back in time to file election nominations in order to contest a parliamentary poll on Jan. 8. There has been no official comment from the government, which shunted him out of the country when he tried to return from exile in September.
Politically isolated, Musharraf allowed another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, to return to Pakistan last month after years abroad, by granting her protection against prosecution in old corruption cases she says were politically motivated.
Shaukat Aziz, the prime minister whose term just ended, announced he would not stand for re-election. Aziz said he needed a break after serving eight years in the government.
The former Citibank executive became prime minister in 2004, and in his earlier post as finance minister Aziz helped transform Pakistan from a country on the brink of bankruptcy to one of the fastest growing economies in Asia.
Aziz survived a suicide attack while campaigning for election in 2004, and the security situation has deteriorated since then. There have been 25 suicide attacks since July. They have accounted for half of some 800 people killed since then in militant-related violence.