MULTAN, Pakistan – Pakistani police arrested a group of Islamist militants plotting to kill the prime minister in a gun and suicide bomb attack at his house, officials said Thursday. The seven men also are accused of targeting other government leaders for assassination.
Militants in Pakistan have frequently attacked government officials, security officers and political leaders as part of a campaign to destabilize the U.S.-allied government and take over the state. Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was killed in a gun-and-bomb attack near Islamabad in 2007.
The conspiracy against Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was nearly complete, police officials said.
The suspects are accused of belonging to the al-Qaida-linked group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Their plan included monitoring Gilani's movements and storming his private residence in the central city of Multan with guns and a suicide bomber, police investigator Waris Bharwana said.
"These terrorists were arrested in a timely fashion, and surely we have averted an attack on the prime minister," he said.
Authorities did not offer any evidence to back up their allegations.
Like other top officials, Gilani does not publicize his movements ahead of time and travels with extensive security.
Abid Qadri, a regional police chief, said authorities learned about the plot during an initial interrogation of the seven militants, who were arrested late Wednesday after a shootout near a village in central Pakistan.
The militants opened fire when police tried to pull their car over for a routine check, Qadri said. Nobody was wounded in the shooting, but two men managed to escape, he said.
A judge has ordered the seven suspects be held and questioned in a prison. Their next court date is Oct. 27, Bharwana said.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a banned Sunni Muslim extremist group, has been linked to the Taliban as well as al-Qaida. The group has been accused of attacking minority Shiite worship places and assaulting security forces and other targets.
Some of the suspects are believed to have taken part in an attack last year on the offices of Pakistan's main spy agency in Multan, which is in Punjab province in central Pakistan, Qadri said.
The men were also conspiring to kill Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, also a Multan native, and the minister for religious affairs, who last year survived an assassination attempt in Islamabad, Qadri said. He said the suspects also had plans to attack a dam, a bridge and military installations.