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20 Dec 2003

Media reports suggest that a GSM jamming device installed in the limousine of President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan delayed a remote controlled explosion on a road bridge by seconds, allowing him to escape with his life.

The bomb was so sophisticated, involving remote control and timing devices, that it was believed to be the work of al-Qaeda.

The 250kg bomb destroyed a road bridge on Sunday, less than a minute after Musharraf's motorcade had passed. Officials said the jamming device, "similar to that used on airliners", was responsible for the delay.

The jammers work by emitting a magnetic impulse to block frequencies used to trigger explosive devices -- including the electronic signals from precision timers.

The blast was at least the third attempt to kill a leader whose pro-American stance has enraged Pakistan's many extremist groups.

The bridge was packed in at least five places with explosives, armed by remote control and timing devices, according to separate intelligence sources. A section of the two-lane bridge crashed into the highway below.

Shortly after the blast, Musharraf blamed the attack on a Pakistani Islamist group, possibly one of five organisations outlawed by the president in October. But the emerging details of the bomb's high level of sophistication have suggested to some officials the hand of al-Qaeda.

The Pakistani information minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, said: "The involvement of al-Qaeda cannot be ruled out, but we do not have any clue to establish their links with the assassination attempt."

The interior minister, Faisal Saleh Hayyat, said Pakistan's security agencies were working overtime to counter terrorist threats.

"We have to take our fight against extremism and intolerance to its logical conclusion without any compromise. We have to uproot extremism from our society," Hayyat said.

Some question Musharraf's determination to crack down on politically influential religious radicals, although he has deployed 70 000 troops to track militants in sensitive tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan, and has handed over hundreds of terror suspects to the US.

Officials in Islamabad yesterday said they had arrested 10 people suspected of having links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the next-door city of Rawalpindi. They were not suspected of involvement in the bomb blast on Sunday.

Musharraf escaped another assassination attempt last year when a bomb failed to explode along the route of his motorcade in the southern city of Karachi. A car used in the attempt was later used in a suicide bomb attack on the US consulate in Karachi, in which 12 people were killed.

Three Islamist militants were found guilty of the plot and jailed for 10 years. But subsequent allegations suggest they may have been framed.

White House spokesperson Scott McClellan said: "President Musharraf is someone who has worked closely with us in the war on terrorism, and it's another indication that that war continues, and we must confront it everywhere."

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