KARACHI, Pakistan – The top general in Pakistan's volatile southern city of Karachi narrowly escaped an assassination attempt Thursday as his motorcade came under a gun and bomb attack. At least nine people died, officials said.
Gunmen waiting in ambush in buildings on opposite sides of a main road in the city center opened fire on a convoy escorting Lt. Gen. Ahsan Saleem Hayat (search), the Karachi corps commander. Soldiers returned fire, and the gunmen fled in at least one car, witnesses said.
"He (Hayat) was the target and he escaped the assassination attempt," army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan told The Associated Press in the capital, Islamabad. Hayat's guard and driver were injured.
Sultan said six soldiers, two policemen and one civilian were killed in the attack near the city's Clifton Bridge, about a quarter mile from the U.S. Consulate.
Mohammed Hussain, a police officer, said he had spotted a bag on the road after the gunbattle and threw it into a vacant field nearby, where it exploded. There were no injuries but a 10-foot wall collapsed.
Security officials later saw another suspicious bag by the bridge and found and defused a bomb inside. It contained 11 pounds of explosives attached to a mobile phone rigged to detonate it, police said.
Hayat is the top military official in Pakistan's largest city of 14 million people, which over the past month has been rocked by terrorist attacks and sectarian unrest that have killed dozens of people.
An intelligence official said on condition of anonymity that when Hayat changed cars after the attack, his shirt collar and pants were bloodstained.
However, Sultan said that Hayat was "perfectly alright" and had attended a meeting at his office afterward.
Karachi has been the scene of numerous bombings and shootings blamed on Islamic militants since President Gen. Pervez Musharraf (search) threw his support behind the U.S.-led war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan in late 2001.
The attempt on Hayat's life follows two failed assassination attempts in December against Musharraf in Rawalpindi, a city near the capital. Musharraf blamed Al Qaeda for those attacks, and a number of renegade military personnel have also been implicated.
Army spokesman Sultan refused to speculate on who could be behind Thursday's attack, or whether the assailants had links to Al Qaeda suspects who on Wednesday clashed with soldiers in a lawless tribal region near the Afghan border, leaving at least 20 people dead.
"It is too early to say who could be behind the attack in Karachi," he said. "But, definitely it is a terrorist attack, and those people who want to destabilize the country are behind it."
Security agencies put airports in three cities on alert after the attack, following a "hijacking threat."
"On intelligence reports, we put Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore airports under high alert in which we take all anti-hijacking measures," said Maj. Riaz Ahmed, a spokesman for the force responsible for security at airports in Pakistan.
He declined to say who had issued the threat or against which airlines. A similar clampdown took place in May after authorities received word a small band of Al Qaeda militants might be plotting to hijack or explode a plane bound for the United Arab Emirates.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack on Hayat, which came a day after the election of a new top official for Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital. His predecessor resigned amid the city's deteriorating security situation.
Officials reported at least eight people were injured, including two women hurt as they passed the scene of the attack in a rickshaw. Some of those hurt were cut by glass from windows shattered in the gunfire.
The shooting left apartments and shops on one side of the road riddled with bullet holes, and the bloodstained sidewalks were covered in broken glass. Investigators gathered empty submachine gun rounds.
Abdul Majid Dafdi, a police officer, said police found an abandoned Toyota van elsewhere in the city that they suspect was used in the attack. It was pocked with bullet holes and there were bloodstains and an AK-47 assault rifle inside. The van had been stolen Wednesday night.
Saif-ur Rahman, who lives in one of the apartments, said he saw four men fleeing in a gray car while shooting with AK-47s.
"As I came out I heard gun fire. When I looked back I saw the men driving away in the car," he said.
Witnesses said there were at least three vehicles in the general's convoy. He usually travels in a limousine in a convoy of eight or 10 vehicles.
The first of three known assassination attempts against Musharraf since he took power five years ago was staged in Karachi in April 2002, when a car packed with explosives on his motorcade route failed to detonate because of a malfunction.
An Islamic extremist group, Harakat-ul Mujahedeen al-Almi (search), was blamed for that attempt, and three of its alleged members have been convicted. The group is also blamed for a June 2002 bombing outside the U.S. Consulate in Karachi that killed 14.