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Police: Pakistani militants target U.S. diplomat

Gunmen opened fire on a U.S. consulate vehicle carrying an American in Pakistan's militancy-plagued northwest Tuesday morning, but there were no casualties, police said.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Gunmen opened fire on the top U.S. diplomat in northwestern Pakistan early Tuesday as she left for work in her armored vehicle, police and embassy officials said. No one was killed or wounded in the shooting.

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 case.

The brazen attack came hours after the collapse of the ruling coalition that drove U.S. ally Pervez Musharraf from the presidency one week ago, throwing more power to Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of assassinated ex-leader Benazir Bhutto.

His party, which holds the largest bloc in Parliament, moved almost immediately to calm U.S. fears that the 5-month-old government was paying too little attention to Islamic militants, banning the Taliban following a string of suicide bombings.

It also rejected a militant cease-fire offer in Bajur, a rumored hiding place for Osama bin Laden, where an army offensive has reportedly killed hundreds in recent weeks and sent 200,000 others fleeing.

Though the U.S. considered Musharraf a strong ally, it has remained publicly neutral in the political contest to succeed the president. U.S. officials, however, have questioned outreach to militants like that supported by ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose party left the ruling coalition on Monday.

A senior U.S. official confirmed Tuesday that Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to the United Nations, had unusual contacts with Zardari, including multiple recent telephone calls, and had planned to meet with Zardari 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.

No claim of responsibility
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Tuesday's attack.

Tracy, an Ohio native who has headed the Peshawar consulate since late 2006, left her home in an upscale and heavily guarded area of the city with a bodyguard, provided by the local anti-terror squad, just after 8 a.m., Khan said.

Though no one was wounded by gunfire, a rickshaw driver was hospitalized after his three-wheeled taxi was hit by the consulate vehicle during its rapid retreat to Tracy's home, he said.

The U.S. Embassy provided few details about Tuesday's attack.

"We are coordinating with Pakistani authorities in investigating the incident," said spokesman Lou Fintor.

Militant activity is rampant in parts of northwest Pakistan, though mainly in tribal regions where U.S. officials say insurgents have found safe havens from which to plan attacks on American and NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan.

Peshawar, home to bin Laden in the 1980s, has not been immune, and concerns about militant activity in and around the crowded, dusty city prompted the government to stage a paramilitary offensive in neighboring Khyber tribal region earlier this year.

It is the army offensive in nearby Bajur, however, that has most angered militants, with helicopter gunships pounding their suspected hide-outs in the rugged, mountainous terrain along the Afghan border.

The U.S. has pledged $750 million toward a five-year drive to develop impoverished areas along the frontier — moves it hopes will reduce extremism.

Talat Masood, a political and military analyst, said American and other diplomats seen as allies in the war on terrorism could increasingly be the targets of militant attacks, especially in the next few weeks.

"I think they have to be very careful" he said, especially as the army intensifies its campaign in tribal regions. "They should take a low profile, their movements should be restricted during this period."

Masood did not think Western allies should scale back their presence, however, saying that would only embolden al-Qaida- and Taliban-linked militants and demoralize Pakistanis.

String of bombings
There have been a string of suicide bombings since Musharraf — a stalwart ally in the U.S. war on terrorism — resigned as president after nearly nine divisive years in power rather than face the humiliation of impeachment.

The Pakistani 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.

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, directly targeting U.S. officials is still relatively unusual. Top diplomats in particular tend to have high security and are often restricted in what places they are allowed to visit.

In 2006, a suicide attacker blew himself up outside the Karachi consulate, killing a U.S. diplomat, and in 2002 five people, including two Americans, died when a militant hurled grenades into a Protestant church in Islamabad.

This year, a bombing at a restaurant frequented by Westerners in the capital killed a Turkish aid worker and wounded at least 12 others, including four FBI personnel. A suicide bombing outside the Danish embassy killed at least six people.

Meanwhile Tuesday, in Pakistan's southwest Baluchistan province, 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 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.

Zardari's 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.

Bhutto's widower was among 30 people who submitted nominations Tuesday for the Sept. 6 election by lawmakers, Election Commission Secretary Kanwar Dilshad said. He is considered the top contender.

Sharif's party has nominated retired judge Saeeduz Zaman Siddiqui.