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Pakistan suicide bombing raises questions about security

Five die after the attacker disguises himself as a security officer to enter the heavily guarded Islamabad office of the United Nations' World Food Program.

By Alex Rodriguez

October 6, 2009

Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan

A suicide bomber disguised as a Pakistani security officer attacked the lobby of a heavily guarded and fortified U.N. office Monday, killing five people and heightening fears of renewed violence in Pakistan's capital after a long lull in suicide attacks.

The midday bombing occurred at the Islamabad headquarters of the World Food Program. Dressed in the uniform of a paramilitary police officer, the bomber asked a security official at the agency's main gate for permission to use the bathroom, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said.

Once he reached the reception area, he detonated about 18 pounds of explosives. The five victims were World Food Program employees: two Pakistani women, two Pakistani men and an Iraqi man. At least six people were injured, two critically.

Malik said today that Taliban militants carried out the attack to avenge the Aug. 5 slaying of their leader Baitullah Mahsud in a U.S. drone attack, the Associated Press reported.

Monday's blast was the first suicide bombing in Islamabad since June, when an assailant scaled a wall at a police station and killed two officers.

Since then, the Pakistani government has strengthened its security measures in the capital and violence attributed to militants has subsided. Police have increased the number of checkpoints throughout Islamabad and stepped up scrutiny of inbound traffic on the city's outskirts.

However, as the Pakistani military prepares for a major ground offensive to root out Taliban militants from the country's volatile Waziristan region along the Afghan border, Taliban leaders have been vowing to strike back with suicide attacks in major Pakistani cities.

Speaking outside the World Food Program compound after surveying the damage, Malik said he had recently warned governmental agencies and the offices of foreign institutions to be on high alert after receiving intelligence reports that militants might strike by disguising themselves in security uniforms or traveling in official vehicles.

"We told them to not even allow inside a police officer that they know without checking his identification card first," Malik said.

The bomber was able to get past tight security at the WFP compound, a two-story building fortified by concertina wire atop high concrete walls, metal detectors at the main entrance and a team of security personnel that includes 19 guards from a private Pakistani security firm, three Pakistani paramilitary police officers and two Islamabad police officers, Malik said.

Susan Manuel, spokeswoman for the United Nations office in Islamabad, said the quality of security provided by the private firm used at the WFP facility is a cause for concern.

"We have private security guards who are not terribly skilled and very low-paid," Manuel said.

Manuel said the U.N. received security alerts from the Pakistani government last week that included warnings about two explosives-laden vehicles that might have entered Islamabad.

But she added that the U.N. had not received any warnings from Pakistani officials about the potential for attackers disguising themselves in security uniforms.

She said the U.N. would close its offices in Pakistan temporarily while it reviews security.

"The WFP has a huge operation here, feeding 2 million people displaced from the Swat Valley," Manuel said, referring to the region where Pakistan's military battled militants last spring. "It has a vital function here. So it's inexplicable and deplorable that anyone would choose the WFP as a target."

In Geneva, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the world body's humanitarian work in Pakistan would continue despite Monday's attack.

"This is a heinous crime committed against those who have been working tirelessly to assist the poor and vulnerable on the front lines of hunger and other human suffering in Pakistan," Ban said.

The explosion damaged the front part of the building, including the lobby and the agency's finance department, witnesses said. Broken glass and debris could be seen strewn across the compound's driveway.

"I went to my office and sat down at my computer, and then suddenly there was this huge blast," said Sajad Anwar, a telecommunications assistant at the WFP office. "When I ran back there to see what happened, I saw people lying on the floor, very seriously hurt."

The compound, like those of several embassies and other international aid groups, is in an upscale section of north Islamabad, where security is tighter than in other parts of the capital. Some compounds are safeguarded by blast walls and heavily armed security officers positioned in sandbag-fortified guard posts.

Attacks such as Monday's highlight the importance of continually reassessing security while Pakistan grapples with a militant threat that shows no signs of abating. Manuel said the U.N. has recently been considering moving its agencies to another location in Islamabad, possibly the heavily fortified Serena Hotel complex.

"The U.N. is a bit stunned because [the WFP office's location] was one of the more secure locations," Manuel said. "There will be a lot of reassessment of what to do now."