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  Air force officers held for attempt to murder Musharraf with rockets

London Telegraph | November 5, 2006
Massoud Ansari in Karachi and Behroz Khan

A cabal of Pakistani military officials with access to President Pervez Musharraf's innermost security circle has been arrested after trying to assassinate him in a rocket attack.

The strike, aimed at the president's high-security personal residence-office in Rawalpindi, took place shortly after he returned from Britain and the US in late September.

Although the president was not hurt, the attempt demonstrates the political instability engulfing his nation, which was heightened last week by his government's bombing of a madrassa in north-west Pakistan killing 80 suspected militants.

With hardline religious parties orchestrating strikes and demonstrations, fears are growing that Gen Musharraf's opponents may make further attempts to remove him by force, creating a power vacuum in the Islamic world's only nuclear-armed state.

According to Pakistani intelligence sources, about 50 people are being held on suspicion of involvement in the September attack, which involved a battery of Russian-made 107 mm projectiles launched by a signal from a mobile phone. Alarmingly, many are understood to be young officers serving in the Pakistani Air Force, some of whom have access to high-security zones of the presidential offices, parliament and the intelligence service.

Although interrogations have not revealed any of them to have links with al-Qaeda or the Taliban, they are none the less believed to have acted out of growing anger at Gen Musharraf's alliance with America in its war on terror.

advertisementOne official said that while the rocket strike itself had been relatively amateurish, it would have probably been lethal had the plotters been assisted beforehand by an Islamic terrorist group.

Al-Qaeda has succeeded in indoctrinating young air force officers before. Two were hanged for their role in planting a 500lb bomb in 2003 blowing up a bridge that Gen Musharraf's convoy was travelling over. He only escaped with his life because electronic jamming equipment on his car delayed the blast.

A rattled Gen Musharraf has called a meeting with his closest confidants this week to review personal security.

While he relies on the armed forces to keep him in power, loyalty among the military's lower tiers has become increasingly in doubt because of the perception that he has "sold out" Pakistan to the US and its western allies.

Publicly, officials close to the president deny that he faces any challenge from within the forces.

But privately they now admit that the personal threat against him is becoming "heavier and heavier", and are predicting serious fall-out from Monday's helicopter strike at the madrassa in the village of Chinagai, 100 miles north of -Peshawar.

The Pakistani army said the madrassa was an al-Qaeda-linked school, used to train insurgents fighting across the border in Afghanistan.

It was allegedly run by Liaquat Hussain, a fugitive cleric who was a purported associate of al-Qaeda's second in command leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Residents and local religious parties, however, claim the victims were either innocent Islamic students or teachers. They say that the strike was carried out at the direction of the US military, a claim denied by both Pakistan and Washington.

The madrassa was in the Bajaur province, a tribal area where local religious parties openly support the Taliban. Local leaders have already pledged to carry out suicide attacks to "avenge" the killing of "innocent people".

"The elimination of Musharraf is a must to restore peace," declared Maulana Faqir Muhammad, a pro-Taliban militant commander, as a crowd carrying guns and chanting, "Death to Musharraf, death to Bush" protested in the Khar area of Bajaur last week. He described Gen Musharraf as an "American agent" who, he said, was "killing innocent people at the US behest".

At a funeral of people killed in the strike, another cleric, Maulana Inayat-ur-Rehman, told 15,000 armed protesters that he had prepared a "squad of suicide bombers" to target Pakistani security forces in the same way that terrorists were attacking Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Gen Musharraf has been on a hit list for Pakistan's Islamic militants ever since he sided with America in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Although he often claims that "he is not an easy target", he wrote in his recently published memoirs In the Line of Fire: "I only pray that I have more than the proverbial nine lives of the cat."


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