Pakistan steps up security, blast toll 16
Police in the Pakistani capital stepped up security on Wednesday as the death toll from a suicide attack outside a court where the country's suspended chief justice was due to speak rose to 16.
More than 60 people were being treated for wounds after the Tuesday evening attack in a car park in Islamabad where a stage had been set up for suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to address a rally of lawyers.
Chaudhry, who has become a symbol of opposition to President Pervez Musharraf's eight-year rule, had not arrived to speak to lawyers at the time of the blast.
"Three people died of their wounds overnight," said an official at the city's main hospital, taking the toll to 16.
Pakistan has seen surge in the violence since government forces stormed Islamabad's Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, compound last week, ending a week-long siege and killing 75 supporters of hardline clerics.
Police set up checkpoints on all main roads into the city and on roads inside the city. They also mounted extra patrols.
Islamabad Police Chief Iftikhar Ahmed told reporters late on Tuesday that police had information that militant suicide bombers had entered the capital.
"We have beefed up security but it is not possible to stop such attacks," he said.
Attacks in the capital are rare compared with the level of violence in the northwest. About 100 people, most of them police and soldiers have been killed in a spate of suicide attacks in the northwest this month.
Musharraf, who suspended Chaudhry on March 9 after accusing him of misconduct, condemned the blast and urged the public to stay clam, the state news agency reported.
Chaudhry's suspension sparked protests by lawyers defending the independence of the judiciary and opposition parties seeking an end to army chief Musharraf's rule.
Their joint campaign snowballed into the biggest challenge to Musharraf's rule since he took power.
Tuesday's blast went off about 30 meters (yards) from the stage set up for Chaudhry and close to a stall put up by the opposition Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
One lawyer with the chief justice said he believed the blast was part of the backlash against the Lal Masjid assault, and was aimed at the PPP because Bhutto had voiced support for the military action against the militants.
But another lawyer close to Chaudhry said he believed the chief justice had been targeted by state intelligence agencies.
"It was a direct attack on the chief justice by the agencies. They wanted to get rid of him," Munir A Malik, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, and a member of Chaudhry's legal team, told reporters.
Bhutto said she was certain her party workers had been targeted, and she believed some "hidden hands" were seeking to create a pretext for Musharraf to impose emergency rule.
Musharraf, an important US ally, has said repeatedly over recent months he would not impose an emergency and elections due around the end of the year would go ahead on time.
A senior US official praised Pakistan on Tuesday for dealing decisively with militancy.
Musharraf had also shown determination to bring about the democratic transition that was important to Pakistan's long-term success, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher told reporters in Washington.