Twin Pakistan suicide blasts kill 15

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RAWALPINDI, Nov 24 (Reuters) Twin suicide blasts killed at least 15 people today in the Pakistani garrison town of Rawalpindi adjoining Islamabad, the military said, including 13 aboard a defence ministry bus.

A suicide bomber rammed a car into the back of the bus outside an intelligence service office, while another bomber blew up his car at a checkpoint outside army headquarters.

The attacks come on the heels of a string of suicide bombings across Pakistan blamed on Islamist militants amid growing insurgency, and as the country heads towards a general election in early January in political convulsions under emergency rule.

''There's a total of 15 people who have lost their lives in the attacks, two suicide bombers and 13 others,'' army spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad said. ''Both were suicide attacks.'' ''There were 50 people sitting in the bus. Many are injured, many are OK,'' he said.

Officials had earlier reported the death toll was 16.

A Reuters witness saw the charred remains of the bus just inside the gate of the intelligence service compound, before police cordoned off the area and put up tents to obscure the view.

The burnt-out chassis of the car used in the other near-simultaneous bombing sat near the main gate to army headquarters, where three security personnel were wounded.

ENGULFED IN FLAMES ''We could not see any bodies as the bus was all in flames.

The wreckage of the bus and the car was all over the place,'' said Wazir Gul Abbasi, owner of a three-storey hotel just opposite the intelligence office, saying there was a huge explosion.

There have been 25 suicide attacks since July. They have accounted for half of some 800 people killed since then in militant-related violence.

Twin suicide blasts in Rawalpindi in September killed 25 people and wounded 70, many of them aboard an intelligence services bus.

Another suicide attack killed 15 soldiers near the capital the same month.

And in late October a suicide attacker blew himself up near President Pervez Musharraf's army residence in Rawalpindi, killing seven.

The blasts come amid political turmoil in Pakistan, which is still under emergency rule imposed by Musharraf in an apparent bid to safeguard his presidency from challenges to his re-election.

A purged Supreme Court has since dismissed them and Musharraf is expected to be sworn in for a second 5-year term, this time as a civilian, imminently.

Further stirring the political mix, Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister deposed by Musharraf in a 1999 coup, plans to return to Pakistan from Saudi Arabian exile tomorrow his brother Shahbaz Sharif told a Pakistani news channel.

General Musharraf, under intense criticism at home and abroad for imposing emergency rule three weeks ago, agreed to Sharif's return in discussions with Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh this week, according to a leader of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League.

By returning tomorrow Sharif will get back in time to file election nominations in order to contest a parliamentary poll on Jan. 8. There has been no official comment from the government, which shunted him out of the country when he tried to return from exile in September.

Politically isolated, Musharraf allowed another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, to return to Pakistan last month after years abroad, by granting her protection against prosecution in old corruption cases she says were politically motivated.

Musharraf is increasingly politically isolated since his imposition of the emergency and subsequent crackdown on his opponents, which have drawn widespread international criticism and seen Pakistan suspended from the Commonwealth.

REUTERS SKB VC1210

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