ISLAMABAD, September 4 – Pakistani police were Thursday investigating a failed assassination attempt on Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, a day after sniper fire struck his motorcade.
The premier was not in the targeted vehicle at the time, but the brazen daytime attack underscored security fears in the world’s only nuclear-armed Islamic nation ahead of Saturday’s presidential election.
The motorcade was headed to pick Gilani up from Islamabad International Airport in the capital’s twin city of Rawalpindi when the attack occurred.
Security officials told AFP that police were examining the site on the main highway to the airport and that the government was awaiting a ballistics report.
"Investigations are under way to determine the nature of the incident," interior secretary Kamal Shah said.
A police investigator said the apparent assassination bid was likely "symbolic."
"What is clear is that they (the attackers) could never have breached the bullet proof windows with this kind of fire," he said.
A police official, meanwhile, said that if the vehicle had been hit by a long-distance sniper shot, the marksman would have been of very high quality.
"A single sniper will find it very hard to hit a moving car twice within a short space," the official said, referring to two bullets that struck the driver’s window of the Mercedes vehicle involved in the incident.
Gilani has been prime minister since March after an election win by his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in Rawalpindi in December.
The premier’s spokesman initially said he was in the hit vehicle but later declined to confirm that, amid the confusion surrounding Thursday’s shooting in Rawalpindi, the garrison town home to Pakistan military headquarters.
Pakistan has a long history of political bloodshed, and the attempt on Gilani’s life came just three days before lawmakers will choose the country’s new president to replace Pervez Musharraf.
Musharraf, who survived multiple attempts on his life while in office, resigned last month after the ruling coalition threatened to impeach him.
Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, is the frontrunner in Saturday’s three-way race.
The attempt to kill Gilani comes amid mounting international concern about the stability of Pakistan, a vital ally in the US-led "war on terror" that is increasingly seen as a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.
Musharraf’s resignation and the race to replace him follow a prolonged battle with Islamic militants who have carried out a series of suicide bombings and clashed with troops on the Afghan border.
A double Taliban suicide bombing at Pakistan’s biggest weapons factory last month killed dozens of people. It was the deadliest ever attack on a Pakistani military site, and put fresh pressure on the government to tackle militancy.
While many have accused Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service of quietly supporting the militants, the country became a close anti-terrorism US ally under Musharraf in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001.
But the US contends that Taliban and Al Qaeda militants have regrouped in Pakistan’s tribal regions, using the area as a launch pad for attacks on international soldiers based in neighbouring Afghanistan.
In the latest unrest on Thursday, Pakistan government forces said they had killed up to 30 suspected militants in Swat valley, a known hotbed of militancy in the northwest.