Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Bomber kills anti-Taliban lawmaker in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's Supreme Court said Tuesday it has taken up petitions challenging the amnesty from graft charges enjoyed by the president and many key allies, paving the way for political turmoil even as the U.S. presses the government to focus on fighting militants near the Afghan border.

Highlighting the dangers, a suicide bomber killed an anti-Taliban lawmaker Tuesday in the northwestern Swat Valley — the latest in a series of suicide attacks in recent weeks in response to an army offensive into a militant stronghold close to the Afghan border.

President Asif Ali Zardari, who is extremely unpopular according to opinion polls, has been under mounting pressure to resign or relinquish key powers and take on a ceremonial role since an amnesty granted by his predecessor expired over the weekend.

Zardari enjoys immunity as president but legal experts have said the court could challenge his eligibility for office and revoke that privilege if it deems the amnesty illegal. The president's office could not immediately be reached for comment but supporters have said he was ready to fight any challenges in court.

The domestic upheaval comes as President Barack Obama was expected to announce a new strategy for defeating the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan and on Pakistan's northwestern border. To have much hope of success, the U.S needs a stable Pakistani government committed to fighting militants blamed for attacks in both countries.

A statement issued Tuesday said the Supreme Court has received petitions calling the amnesty granted under ex-military leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf to Zardari and more than 8,000 other politicians and bureaucrats a violation of fundamental rights. It said the court has notified all concerned parties it will start proceedings into the cases on Dec. 7.

The amnesty was part of a deal that paved the way for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to return home from self-exile and take part in politics without facing cases her party says were politically motivated. Zardari took control of the party after Bhutto died in a suicide bombing on Dec. 27, 2007.

Zardari, 54, has long been haunted by corruption allegations dating back to governments led by his late wife, Bhutto, and has spent several years in prison under previous administrations. He denies any wrongdoing.

The opposition also has called on Zardari to give up sweeping powers he inherited from Musharraf.

Pakistan's original constitution envisages a parliamentary style of government, in which a popularly elected prime minister is the chief executive and the president is a ceremonial head of state. But Musharraf, who was widely despised when he stood down, accumulated powers to stay in office.

Zardari relinquished command of the country's nuclear arsenal on Friday and has said he would give up more powers in the near future.

The suicide bomber blew himself up among guests greeting provincial assembly member Shamsher Khan in his house close to the main Swat Valley town of Mingora, police and hospital officials said. Nine other people were wounded, including the lawmaker's brother.

Swat Valley was the site of a major military offensive this summer that was largely considered a success. But sporadic bombings and clashes still occur, raising fears many of the militants escaped and could regroup.

Similar concerns have been expressed about a major army assault that began in mid-October in the border region of South Waziristan that has reclaimed several towns.

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said Tuesday's bombing would not derail the government's efforts against the insurgents.

"Such reprehensible acts can never defeat our resolve to root out terrorism and militancy," he said.

Khan, 59, was a member of the secular Awami National Party, which is in power in northwest Pakistan and has been a vocal supporter of army offensives against militants in the region as well as education for girls.

Regional police chief Idrees Khan said the bomber's head was severed from his body and he appeared to be about 16 years old.

He said the overall security situation in Swat Valley remained under control despite the continued threat from militants.

"The Taliban have been struggling to reassert their presence since their defeat," he said. "This incident will not shatter the faith and nerves of the people of Swat."

Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad in Islamabad and Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.


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