Pakistani minister critical of Taliban injured in assassination attempt

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 2, 2009 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Pakistani government minister narrowly escaped assassination Wednesday after gunmen ambushed his official car in a brazen attack in broad daylight, shooting him and killing his driver.

The highest-profile attack on a senior government official in recent years, it had the earmarks of an Islamic extremist assault. The target, Hamid Saeed Kazmi, the minister for religious affairs, is a moderate who'd been critical of Pakistan's Taliban militants.

Kazmi's car was sprayed with bullets shortly after he left the Religious Affairs Ministry, on a main road in central Islamabad, around 3 p.m., officials and witnesses said. His driver died on the spot, shot in the head, and a bodyguard was badly wounded. Kazmi was hit in the leg and was being treated at a hospital.

Extremists have carried out suicide bombings in the past against government officials and military personnel, but the assault on Kazmi appeared more like a professional hit, with the gunmen traveling on a motorbike.

"These attackers look like an insider group," senior Islamabad police Officer Tahir Alam said, speaking at the scene of the ambush.

Alam said that pistols and Kalashnikov machine guns were used. The weapons, including a hand grenade, were recovered from a bag discarded nearby.

"Mr. Kazmi is wounded but stable," said Khalid Hussain, a doctor at Islamabad's Federal Government Services Hospital.

Doctors said that the bone in Kazmi's lower leg had been shattered. Television pictures showed him after surgery with metal pins sticking out of his bandaged leg.

Local news media reported that Kazmi's armed police escort, which travels in a separate vehicle, had peeled away to refuel as it left the ministry. The minister's car, a black Toyota Corolla, apparently wasn't armored. A nearby police station failed to respond to the sound of gunfire, allowing the attackers to get away.

Blood was smeared across the steering wheel and front seats of the car, shattered glass was strewn around and bullet holes were visible inside and outside the vehicle. The car crashed into a tree.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik said two gunmen took part in what he called a "target killing."

Pakistan launched a military offensive against the Taliban in late April in the northwest of the country. Earlier this month, a missile fired from a U.S. spy plane killed the leader of the country's Taliban movement, Baitullah Mehsud, in the Waziristan region on the Afghan border. The militants had vowed revenge. In recent days some 40 security personnel were killed in two separate suicide attacks.

"We have been receiving threats because we are against terrorism, we are against Taliban, we are against Baitullah Mehsud, we are against suicide attacks," said Kazmi's brother, Mazhar Saeed Kazmi.

Under the previous regime of military strongman Pervez Musharraf, Islamic extremists made several unsuccessful but daring assassination attempts through suicide attacks to protest his close alliance with Washington. Musharraf's motorcade was struck twice in 2004, and his prime minister and interior minister also were targeted. Assassins killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto during an election rally in nearby Rawalpindi in December 2007.

A democratic government led by Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, came to power last year but grew even closer to the U.S., angering militants, who started a full-blown insurgency. Hamid Saeed Kazmi, a religious cleric, was central to the present government's efforts to turn public opinion against the Taliban, preparing the ground for a military offensive.

In June, a suicide attacker killed a prominent anti-Taliban Islamic scholar, Sarfraz Naeemi, in his Quranic school.

Last year, unknown assailants gunned down a retired general, Faisal Alvi, in his car just outside Islamabad. Alvi was formerly the head of the Special Services Group commando unit, which had taken action against the Taliban.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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