Cartoons may have prompted bombing of Danish embassy in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A car bomb ripped through the street outside the Danish embassy here, killing at least six, in an apparent act of revenge against cartoons of the prophet Muhammad published in Danish newspapers in 2005.

A Danish citizen of Pakistani origin was among the dead, according to the Danish Foreign Ministry in Copenhagen. Local Pakistani media put the fatalities at eight; 35 were injured.

It was the first bombing, outside Pakistan's trouble northwest, since the country's new government came into office at the end of March. Officials previously had suggested that the controversial new policy of holding peace talks with Islamist militants based in the northwest tribal region had ended a vicious campaign of bombings that had rocked the previous regime.

"This has far-reaching consequences," said Javed Hashmi, a leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, Pakistan's second largest political party and an estranged member of the ruling coalition government. "Since this democratic government came in, bomb blasts had lessened. Today that challenge has stood up again."

The car bomb exploded about 1 p.m. local time on a side street that runs alongside the Danish mission, which is in an upscale residential area of Islamabad. A crater about six feet across and three feet deep was left in the street, the car completely blown away by the force of the blast. Its engine was thrown more than 30 feet away. Officials said it was unclear whether it was a suicide attack. Pieces of human flesh were scattered across the area.

There were fears that the Taliban-inspired groups blamed for the previous bombings had started a new drive against the government. But experts thought it more likely that either a Taliban splinter group was behind the attack, seeking to derail the peace process, or an international group with a different agenda.

"The severity of the blast, type of technology used was quite different (from previous bombings)," said Talat Masood, a retired general turned security analyst. "It looks as if they wanted an international impact, an agenda outside our national boundaries."

Masood said it could have been the work of al Qaida. The terror group's deputy leader, Ayman al Zawahri, recently called for attacks on Danish targets, placing the country's embassies under obvious threat. Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller pointed out that the presence of his country's troops in Afghanistan might also be a motive.

There was swift reaction from Washington, pointedly suggesting that a harder line against extremism was needed.

"It does serve as a reminder to the government of Pakistan and to all governments that terrorism is real, that it cannot not be allowed to have safe haven, they must be dealt with and confronted," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

Pakistan has insisted that it is talking to tribesmen, not terrorists, based on its northwest border with Afghanistan. Rehman Malik, the Interior Ministry chief, said the negotiations would continue.

"There is no question of any impact of this incident on the peace process, but of course it badly harmed our image in the world," said Malik.

In mid-March, a bombing at an Italian restaurant in Islamabad also targeted foreigners. It injured four FBI agents and killed a Turkish woman but appeared to be a more amateurish attack than the explosion outside the Danish embassy.

Pakistan has seen large demonstrations against the Danish cartoons this year, organized by mainstream Islamist parties. Angry crowds have marched through Pakistani cities, especially the southern port city of Karachi. Danish flags have been burned, but the rallies have been largely peaceful. The controversy, dating back to the 2005 publication of the cartoons depicting Mohammed, including one with a bomb in his turban, was stoked up again by the re-publication of the images earlier this year.

Munawar Hassan, secretary general of Jamaat-e-Islami, a popular religious party that has organized protests against the cartoons, condemned the bombing but claimed that Muslims were left with little choice but to resort to such violent acts.

"This is the reaction," Hassan said. "The government of Denmark is not doing anything positive, despite the fact that millions of people came out on the streets, peacefully demonstrating. Nobody is paying any heed. What is the common man to do? He has no option."

The Danish embassy was left scarred but not badly damaged, with the gate and part of the guard post blown away and windows shattered. Klavs Holm, from the Danish Foreign Ministry in Copenhagen, said that the embassy had received "rather specific threats" over the last couple of months and security had been beefed up as a result.

Speaking soon after the blast, Holm said that three Danish nationals were in the building at the time and were unhurt. Two Pakistani employees were killed, a repairman and a gardener, and the Danish citizen of Pakistani orgin. There is currently no ambassador assigned to Islamabad, but that was due to change in September, he said.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)