Suspected suicide bombers brought carnage to the heart of Pakistan's military establishment yesterday as twin explosions near the army headquarters in the garrison town of Rawalpindi left at least 25 dead and 70 injured.
Body parts, blood and shredded clothes were spread around the sites of the blasts. Both exploded in market areas in the morning rush hour next to the national military headquarters in Rawalpindi, adjoining the capital Islamabad.
The bomb that caused most of the casualties went off on a bus carrying defence employees to work; the second was on a motorcycle and killed at least one colonel according to eyewitnesses.
"It was a white bus with a blue stripe," said Mohammed Faisal, a security guard at the petrol station across the road from the bombing. "There was a line of army staff waiting to be taken to work. As soon as they sat down, at around 7:20am, the front of the bus exploded. The roof hovered in the air for some time. Only the back four or five seats were spared."
Pointing to the surrounding army offices and residences, Mr Faisal added: "It was such a strong blast. All these windows were shattered. I saw something like 25 to 30 bodies lying on the road, some still alive. Ambulances and the police arrived 20 minutes later."
Little was left of the bus beyond for a charred and mangled frame. Windows, lights, handles, doors, and panels were strewn across the road. Rescue workers cut open the wreckage to pull out injured people and bodies. A junior army officer at the military hospital said the surviving passengers were mostly civil staff from the ISI intelligence agency. But other reports suggested the bus was carrying employees of the Atomic Energy Commission heading for Kahuta.
There has been no claim of responsibility. A Ministry of Interior spokesman said the twin blasts had "direct links" with the tribal belt on the Afghan border. A high-level alert has been declared in Rawalpindi and neighbouring Islamabad.
There has been a spate of suicide attacks and other bombings since the government assault on the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July but none has targeted such a high profile target. Since the Red Mosque siege, there has also been a breakdown in the government's peace pact with tribesmen in the Waziristan region in the north-west of the country . Last week more than 100 soldiers were kidnapped by militants in South Waziristan, according to army officials. The militants say the figure is nearly three times as high.
"Today's attack was in the heart of the high security zone. This cannot be allowed to go on and measures have to be taken to ensure political stability," said the Religious Affairs Minister, Ijaz-ul Haq. The violence has destabilised the country, just as it is due to hold general elections before the end of the year and as General Pervez Musharraf is attempting to extend his eight-year rule as president. There were reports last night that aides to General Musharraf had almost agreed the terms of a power-sharing deal with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, following a meeting between the two sides in the United Arab Emirates.
Talat Masood, a former general turned political analyst, said the Rawalpindi bombs were related to the confrontation inWaziristan.
"They [the attackers] are trying to send a strong message to the army and the government, that 'we are here and look how bold we have become'. It shows Pakistan is under very, very severe threat." It made the election all the more urgent as General Musharraf did not have the support of the people to counter terrorism.
The key players
Army chief and president for eight years, committed to the US "war on terror". Position undermined by Chief Justice Chaudhry, fired then reinstated by Musharraf, who is attempting to remain president while keeping on military uniform. His powerbase has been eroded by planned returns of political giants Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto.
Moderately conservative, Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League supports the restoration of secular democracy, and return of the army to barracks. Sharif, who twice served as prime minister, has formed an opposition alliance and announced his return to Pakistan from London on 10 September.
The Pakistan People's Party, led by former Prime Minister Bhutto, is the country's most liberal. She supports rights for women and the poor but her family is dogged by corruption claims. Her popularity was damaged by seeking power-sharing deal with Musharraf.