KARACHI, Pakistan – Explosive experts on Monday defused a bomb in a van parked next to the heavily guarded U.S. Consulate in this southern Pakistani city, sparing the building from “big destruction,” police said.
The thwarted attack came just two days ahead of a scheduled visit to Pakistan by Secretary of State Colin Powell. He was due to arrive in the country on Wednesday, but was not scheduled to visit Karachi.
It was not immediately clear who planted the device, though Islamic extremist groups have repeatedly targeted Westerners and minority Christians since the government threw its support behind the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
“The man or men who left this van near the U.S. Consulate building wanted to blow it up,” Pakistan’s Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told The Associated Press in Islamabad.
Officials said a paramilitary ranger guarding the consulate had spotted a Suzuki van with one or two people inside parked about five yards from its perimeter wall. Before they could be questioned properly, the men were picked up in a car and fled.
The van, which contained a large blue water tank filled with explosives, was moved to a safe place and police bomb experts disconnected a timer and detonators attached to the tank.
Karachi police official Mohammed Irfan said the tank contained about 200 gallons of a liquid explosive material. Police were investigating the type of the explosive and when it was timed to detonate.
“We saved this place from big destruction,” Irfan told AP.
Hundreds of policemen and paramilitary troops cordoned off the consulate, on a main road in an upscale neighborhood of Karachi, and checked the area for additional explosives. The building is surrounded by high walls and lies about 40 feet back from the road.
Andrew Steinfeld, the counselor for public affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, said the bomb was discovered between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m before most consulate staff had arrived for work.
“There was a bomb found in a truck in the early morning. Police removed it and Pakistani authorities are investigating,” he said.
After the bomb was found, the consulate was closed for the day, and it wasn’t clear when it would reopen.
Senior investigator Fayyaz Leghari said police have asked the U.S. Consulate for footage from surveillance cameras that could have recorded images of the men who parked the van.
In June 2002, a suicide bomber blew up a truck in front of the U.S. Consulate, killing 14 Pakistanis. The attack came a month after another suicide attack outside a hotel that killed 11 French engineers.
Islamic militants were blamed in the two attacks.
Leghari said that on Sunday night two armed men had stolen the Suzuki van used to carry the bomb from 17-year-old student Tariq Muneeb, who was shot and injured in the robbery and is being treated in a Karachi hospital.
“He has given us some information about the robbers,” Leghari said, adding that police were preparing sketches of the men.
A police investigator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the same type of van was used in the June 2002 bombing, leading him to believe that the same group could be responsible.
Four men, who allegedly belonged to the outlawed Islamic militant group Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen Al-Almi, were convicted last year for the June 2002 bombing. Two were sentenced to death by hanging, and two to life in prison.
“Everything, ranging from converting the van into a moving bomb and preparing a man to take it to the U.S. Consulate building was done in one night,” a Pakistani intelligence official said on condition of anonymity.
The official said the paramilitary ranger told investigators that a suspect who left the van was aged 18-20. The suspect had told the ranger he had stopped the van because it had developed a fault, before he fled in a car which stopped near him. It wasn’t clear whether the suspect had been alone or accompanied in the van.
Eds: Associated Press writer Munir Ahmad in Islambad contributed to this report.