ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A twin suicide bombing Thursday killed at least 60 people at a military ordnance factory north of Islamabad, part of a surge in Islamic extremist violence that comes as the government teeters on the brink of collapse.
In probably the worst-ever terrorist attack on a Pakistan military installation, two bombers blew themselves up at different gates of the giant plant in Wah, about 20 miles from the capital, just as hundreds of workers were coming through for the afternoon change of shifts.
Unofficial reports put the death toll at 64, with 100 wounded. Earlier this week, a bombing at a hospital in Dera Ismail Khan, in the northwest, killed 27 people. Pakistan's Taliban movement, which is linked to al Qaida, claimed responsibility for both bombings.
The Taliban are able to strike at will, analysts said Thursday. The Wah arms plant, which is the biggest munitions-manufacturing facility in Pakistan and is heavily guarded by the army, is one of the most well-protected places in the country.
"This is an intensification" in the attacks, said Talat Masood, a retired general who once headed the factory. "They're trying to blackmail the government."
Pakistani security forces are fighting militants in Bajaur, part of the country's tribal border area with Afghanistan, and in Swat, a valley in the northwest. Separately, an intertribal conflict has erupted in Kurram, another part of the tribal territory, in which some 350 locals have died in the last two weeks. Pakistan's tribal territory is used as a launch pad for insurgents in Afghanistan, according to U.S. and NATO commanders.
Pakistani Taliban declared that the factory blasts were revenge for the offensives in Bajaur and Swat, in which hundreds of insurgents are thought to have been killed, and warned that the bombings will continue until the army pulls out.
"Only innocent people die when the Pakistan army carries out airstrikes in Bajaur or Swat," Taliban spokesman Maulvi Omar said. "If the army is really fond of fighting, it should send ground forces to see how we fight."
The militants appear to be exploiting the political vacuum in Pakistan. Elections in February brought a coalition government to power that's never been able to gel. It was able to come together briefly in a move that ousted Pervez Musharraf as president on Monday, but the political parties quickly deadlocked again. While the parties are at odds over the judiciary, there's also no consensus on how to tackle the extremist challenge.
"We have to devise a policy which is national, which protects and serves our own interests," said Sadiq ul-Farooq, a spokesman for Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N, one of the two big parties in the coalition.
While the other major party in the coalition, the Pakistan People's Party, has said that the anti-terrorism fight is "our war," Sharif's party and most other political groups in the country regard it as "America's war" and have called for a nonviolent solution.
President Bush telephoned Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on Thursday. The leaders "reaffirmed their mutual support for going after these extremists that are a threat to both Pakistan, the United States and the entire world," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
It had been hoped that Musharraf's ouster would dampen the violence, part of an extremist insurrection that started when he allied with Washington after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It also had been hoped that his departure would end the new government's apparent paralysis; the coalition had claimed that Musharraf was blocking key decisions.
The coalition may finally collapse Friday, with the passing of another self-imposed deadline — the third set by the government — for reaching an agreement on the reinstatement of judges whom Musharraf sacked last November, which has become Pakistan's central political issue. Sharif's party wants all the judges brought back, while the Pakistan People's Party is reluctant to reinstate deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Sharif is threatening to walk out of the coalition.
The next president is most likely to be Asif Zardari, a highly controversial figure who became the leader of the Pakistan People's Party after the assassination of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, last December. His candidacy may be announced Friday.
It would be a remarkable turnaround in the political fortunes of Zardari, who'd been vilified in Pakistan for alleged corruption before Bhutto's death and had lived in exile. Zardari, who also had faced charges of involvement in at least two murder cases, has never been convicted of any crime. He returned to Pakistan after Musharraf provided him with legal amnesty.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)