Suicide bomber kills 7 near Musharraf army home

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RAWALPINDI, Oct 30 (Reuters) A suicide attack today killed at least seven people, including the bomber, less than a kilometre from Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's army residence in Rawalpindi, police said.

The attacker blew himself up next to a police checkpoint just metres from the gates to the residence of one of Musharraf's most senior officers, General Tariq Majid, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Recently promoted, Majid had not yet moved in.

A Reuters photographer saw a head hanging from the branches of a tree. Typically the upward force from a suicide bomber's exploding vest blows the head off.

US ally General Musharraf was meeting army commanders at General Headquarters some 2 km away at the time of the blast, officials said.

Hours later, inaugurating a highway in North West Frontier Province (NWFP), Musharraf spoke of the militancy fanning out from tribal areas in the province.

''If we do not stop this deluge, if we do not check this extremism and terrorism, there could be serious problems for Pakistan,'' Musharraf said in a speech.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan is suffering mounting political uncertainty and insecurity, as US ally Musharraf, who came to power in a coup eight years ago, tries to engineer a transition to civilian-led democracy while remaining at the helm.

The latest attack took place on a road where many of Pakistan's top brass reside.

Rawalpindi police chief Saud Aziz said three policemen and three passers-by were among those killed, while 11 people were wounded in the blast.

ATTACKER CHALLENGED ''Our policeman challenged the attacker who exploded himself near their picket,'' Aziz said. ''He was on foot.'' Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said the bomber was aged between 19 and 23, with long hair and a fair complexion.

A witness, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the location, described the scene.

''I was sitting in my house when I heard the explosion. I came out and saw body parts scattered all around,'' he said. ''I could not look, I went back into the house, it was terrible.'' A Reuters journalist saw body parts on the road and blood splattered on a perimeter wall of General Majid's residence.

Television footage showed a corpse slumped over a bicycle, and pools of blood on the road, as police picked up debris around the charred police post, before the area was hosed down.

Flying splinters struck a passenger mini-bus passing on the other side of the two-way road, causing it to crash into a wall, injuring a woman and two children, police said.

Musharraf is known to have survived at least three al Qaeda inspired assassination attempts, two in December 2003, and one last July as his plane took off from Rawalpindi's airport.

COURT CHALLENGE There has been speculation that Musharraf could declare emergency powers and delay national elections due in January if the Supreme Court, in a ruling expected later this week, decides his re-election by parliament on Oct. 6 was invalid.

The court is hearing challenges to Musharraf's right to have stood for re-election while still army chief, though he has promised to quit the army and be sworn in as a civilian leader.

An attack by possibly two suicide bombers killed 139 people at a procession in the southern city of Karachi on October 18 to welcome home former prime minister Benazir Bhutto from self-imposed exile.

Bhutto, like Musharraf, is regarded as friendly to the West and they have both vowed to stamp out militancy.

Suicide and roadside bomb attacks on security forces have multiplied since commandos stormed the Red Mosque in the capital, Islamabad, in July to crush a Taliban-style movement. More than 100 people were killed in the fighting.

The security situation in the country has continued to deteriorate, with scores of people killed in the past few days alone in fighting between security forces and followers of a rebel cleric in the scenic valley of Swat in NWFP.

Investors' nervousness over the political uncertainty and mounting insecurity showed as the Karachi Stock Exchange's benchmark index closed more than 2.5 per cent down.

REUTERS SG ND1832

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