A suicide bomber killed at least 15 people in northwest Pakistan Monday, including four police officers, as a government minister with close ties to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf warned of the danger of suicide bombers targeting politicians in the run up to national parliamentary elections, due by January.
Shaikh Rashid Ahmed, Pakistan's Minister for Railways, became the first member of Musharraf's cabinet to confirm previous claims from intelligence officials who warned, on background, of the danger of suicide attacks during the election. Ahmed spoke to CBS News Monday in an exclusive telephone interview.
His comments coincided with the latest suicide attack to hit the south Asian country.
The bomber struck in Bannu, a major town in the volatile Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) bordering Afghanistan. According to eyewitness accounts, the suicide bomber was riding in a rickshaw when he blew himself up in a busy part of town known as Afsar chowk, killing at least fifteen people including four policemen. At least twenty people were injured.
"There are, of course, intelligence reports which tell us that hundreds of suicide bombers are waiting in the pipeline to strike during the election campaign" the Pakistani minister told CBS News.
Ahmed said those Islamic clergymen who issued a "fatwa" (religious decree) opposing suicide attacks "were also among the potential targets. These people (suicide bombers) will not tolerate anyone opposing them" he added.
The latest attack follows a number of suicide and small arms attacks to hit Pakistan since July, when Musharraf ordered military commandoes to storm a pro-Taliban mosque and religious school in the centre of Islamabad, the country's capital.
Before the premises were, clerics at the Red Mosque and the adjoining Islamic women's seminary known as "jamia-e-hifza" had waged a highly provocative anti-government campaign, frequently calling for the imposition of Taliban-style Islamic law in the country.
But Pakistan already faced a growing number of suicide attacks even before the siege on the mosque in July. Such attacks are widely believed to have been carried out by al Qaeda and Taliban members who have established camps in the rugged tribal region of Pakistan, along the Afghan border.
Volunteers are trained at the camps to wage armed resistance against U.S. and other Western forces across the border in Afghanistan, senior Western diplomats believe. The volunteers are also trained to manufacture explosive devices and explosive belts used for suicide attacks, according to senior Pakistani intelligence officials.
Ahmed said that during the election campaign suicide bombers were likely to target Pakistan's largest eight cities, with populations of two million or more. "The election campaigns in these eight cities will live with the danger of suicide attacks. These cities are the prime targets," he told CBS News.
As many as 90,000 Pakistani troops were deployed to the tribal region, primarily to curb the activities of the Taliban and al Qaeda. Pakistan has been a key U.S. ally in President Bush's war on terror, receiving up to $10 billion in direct and indirect assistance from Washington since Musharraf turned his back on the Taliban after the Sept. 11 attacks.
However, the Pakistani military's ability to operate freely and effectively in the tribal area has been increasingly questioned after as many as 250 regular and paramilitary soldiers were taken captive by Taliban militants in the region last month, reportedly without putting up a fight.
Farhan Bokhari has been covering southeast Asia for several large European news organizations for 16 years. Based in Islamabad, his focus is security issues, in particular al Qaeda and the regional aspects of the global fight against terrorism.