U.S. diplomat escapes gun attack

August 26, 2008 11:22:54 AM PDT
Gunmen opened fire on the top U.S. diplomat in northwestern Pakistan early Tuesday as she left for work in her armored vehicle, forcing her driver to slam into reverse and retreat to the shelter of her residential compound. No one was killed in the attack. Lynne Tracy, principal officer for the consulate in the bustling city of Peshawar, was 100 yards from her house when two men with AK-47s jumped out of their dark blue Land Cruiser and sprayed her car with dozens of rounds of ammunition.

Her driver reversed the vehicle and peeled back to her home, said Arshad Khan, the local police chief and senior investigator in the case. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

The brazen attack came hours after the breakup of Pakistan's ruling coalition government, a fracture that could concentrate more power into the hands of a party that says it is committed to supporting the U.S. war on terror.

The United States has remained publicly neutral in the political contest to succeed Pervez Musharraf.

But a senior U.S. official confirmed Tuesday that Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to the United Nations, had unusual contacts with Asif Ali Zardari, widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and a contender to succeed Musharraf, including multiple recent telephone calls and a meeting planned for next week.

The contacts angered senior diplomats at the State Department who have tried to give the coalition government room to maneuver.

The meeting between Khalilzad and Zardari is now canceled, the official said.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe Khalilzad's confidential conversations and the internal Bush administration reaction. The Khalilzad-Zardari contacts were first reported by the New York Times.

The government Monday announced a ban on the Pakistani Taliban - blamed for a wave of suicide bombings in recent days - and hours earlier rejected a cease-fire offer in the Bajur tribal region by the militants.

Tracy, an Ohio native, has headed the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar since late 2006. Khan said Tracy's heavily-armored Land Cruiser was slightly damaged.

Militant activity is rampant in parts of northwest Pakistan - a rumored hiding place of Osama bin Laden and home to him in the 1980s - though mainly in tribal regions where U.S. officials say insurgents have found safe havens in which to plan attacks on U.S. and NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan.

Peshawar, a crowded, dusty city, has not been immune, and concerns about militant activity in and around it prompted the government to stage a paramilitary offensive in neighboring Khyber tribal region earlier this year.

Talat Masood, a political and military analyst, said American and other Western diplomats could increasingly be the targets of militant attacks, especially in the next few weeks.

"They should take a low profile, their movements should be restricted during this period," he said, noting the army was intensifying its campaign in tribal regions along the Afghan border.

Masood did not think Western allies should scale back their presence, however, saying that would only embolden the militants and demoralize Pakistanis.

The Taliban claimed to be behind a twin suicide bombing at a weapons manufacturing complex near the federal capital, Islamabad, that killed 67 people - one of the largest terrorist attacks ever in the country.

There have been at least three bloody attacks since then. The Taliban spokesman could not immediately be reached to comment on Tuesday's attack.

Pakistan, where anti-American sentiment runs deep, is considered a hardship posting for U.S. diplomats, with many coming for one-year stints without family.

However, while there are occasional attacks on Western targets, ones directly targeting U.S. officials are still relatively unusual. Top diplomats in particular tend to have high security and are often restricted in where they are allowed to visit.

Along with its embassy, the U.S. has three consulates in Pakistan - in Peshawar, the eastern city of Lahore and the southern city of Karachi. In 2006, a suicide attacker blew himself up outside the Karachi consulate, killing a U.S. diplomat.

In 2002, a militant hurled grenades into a Protestant church in Islamabad attended by members of the diplomatic community, killing five people, including two Americans.

The U.S. Embassy provided few details about Tuesday's attack, saying only that there was a "security incident" involving three consulate employees.

U.S. and Pakistani authorities were investigating the attack, embassy spokesman Lou Fintor added.

In Pakistan's southwest Baluchistan province, meanwhile, a bomb rigged to a motorcycle parked near the stage of a political rally in the town of Jaaferabad wounded at least 20 people, some critically, police official Nazir Ahmad said.

The attacks come as the country's ruling coalition has crumbled, causing stocks to tumble to a two-year low Tuesday. Just last week, the two main parties united to drive Musharraf from the presidency, but their partnership collapsed Monday over disputes about his successor and how to restore judges he had ousted.

The main ruling Pakistan People's Party is expected to cobble together a new coalition now that its key junior partner has quit, avoiding the need for another general election.

The People's Party, long led by Bhutto before her assassination, moved almost immediately to calm U.S. fears that the government is paying too little attention to extremism, banning the Taliban group and demanding they surrender their arms.

Zardari, Bhutto's widower and political successor, has said he will run for president, and is expected to win easily. The party submitted his nomination papers Tuesday.