ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Twin Taliban homicide bombings at Pakistan's largest weapons complex killed at least 59 people Thursday, heightening the turmoil following Pervez Musharraf's ouster as president.
The ruling coalition, made up of traditional rivals who were united primarily in their determination to force Musharraf from office, meanwhile appeared to be veering toward collapse. The two main parties have been unable to bridge key differences such as whether judges fired by Musharraf should be quickly reinstated and who should succeed him as president.
Pakistanis have urged the civilian government to stop bickering and turn quickly to tackling the country's problems from an economic downturn to extremist violence in the volatile northwest, where fighting between security forces and Islamic militants has escalated in recent weeks.
The bombers struck two different gates of the government weapons complex just as workers were leaving. The complex, comprising 12 factories, is located in Wah, a garrison city 20 miles west of the capital, Islamabad.
Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said the perimeter is guarded by a dedicated paramilitary force. Experts have suggested that facilities related to Pakistan's secretive nuclear weapons program are located in the Wah area, possibly including a uranium enrichment plant. Abbas insisted the complex attacked on Thursday was producing only conventional weapons.
At the hospital, relatives searched frantically for loved ones as doctors worked to save those most seriously injured.
A young man, Mohammad Asif, stood wailing after identifying the lifeless body of his 60-year-old father in an ambulance.
"He was a humble man. ... What wrong did he do to anyone? Why was he punished? These cruel people have taken away the great shadow of my father," Asif said.
Among more than a dozen bodies seen by an Associated Press Television News reporter at the hospital were two wearing uniforms, though an army spokesman said he had no information that security forces were among the dead.
Rana Tanveer, who was working at a bank about 200 yards from one of the two gates where bombers struck, said he was among the first to reach the scene.
"All around the gate I saw blood and human flesh. People helped the injured and took them in their cars and even on motorbikes to the hospital," he said. "Seven or eight people were already dead and another 10 people were breathing their last."
Regional police Chief Nasir Durrani said authorities believed they had found the remains of the two bombers and would try to reconstruct their faces to try to identify them.
"There are two torn bodies lying there which we believe are those of the suicide bombers," he said.
The Taliban claimed responsibility.
Maulvi Umar, a spokesman for Pakistani Taliban groups, told The Associated Press the attacks were in revenge for military airstrikes in Bajur, a militant stronghold near the Afghan border.
He threatened similar bombings in other major cities, including Islamabad, unless the operations were halted.
"Only innocent people die when the Pakistan army carries out airstrikes in Bajur or Swat," he said, referring to a mountain valley where the army has vowed to clear out militants who have kidnapped and killed police and troops and burned girls' schools.
"If the army is really fond of fighting, it should send ground forces to see how we fight," Umar told AP by telephone from an undisclosed location.
The arms factory lies on the road toward Pakistan's troubled northwest.
Tanvir Lodhi, a spokesman for Pakistan Ordnance Factories, said 59 people were killed. Mohammed Azhar, a hospital official, said 70 were wounded.
The Taliban struck amid a political crisis in the country. Musharraf, who had been a key supporter of the U.S. war on terrorism, resigned Monday to dodge the humiliation of impeachment following nearly nine years in power.
The coalition government, meanwhile, has resumed debate over how to restore dozens of Supreme Court judges Musharraf fired last year to avoid legal challenges to his rule.
The maneuver deepened his unpopularity, propelling his rivals to victory in parliamentary elections five months ago, and turned the judges into controversial political figures.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party threatened Thursday to leave the ruling coalition unless the judges were quickly reinstated and the coalition's biggest bloc, the Pakistan People's Party, appeared to be lining up smaller parties to keep control of parliament in case that happened.
"The future of this coalition is linked to the restoration of judges," Sharif's spokesman Sadiqul Farooq told The Associated Press. "If the judges are not restored, we will prefer to sit on opposition benches."
Sharif wants to restore the all the justices, who could help him if he decides to seek revenge against Musharraf, who ousted the former premier in a 1999 coup, jailed him and then banished him to exile in Saudi Arabia.
But Asif Ali Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan People's Party, is less enthusiastic. He has accused former chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry of being too political.
Analysts say he also may be worried the former chief justice would revive corruption cases against him or facilitate legal action against Musharraf — a destabilizing move sure to dismay the country's Western backers, especially the United States.
The People's Party said Thursday it was committed to restoring the judges but that it had other priorities as well, including improving the lives of ordinary Pakistanis struggling with chronic food and fuel shortages.
The coalition also must agree on a candidate for president. The new leader must be elected by lawmakers by mid-September.
The People's Party insists that as the largest party in the coalition, it has the right to choose the new head of state, something unlikely to go over well with Sharif.