ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – A suicide bomber blew himself up next to a car carrying Pakistan’s prime minister-designate Friday, getting close enough to kill his driver and at least four other people, and spraying shrapnel into a crowd of supporters gathered to hear the politician.

About three dozen people were wounded, hospital officials said, some seriously.

The assassination attempt against Shaukat Aziz occurred just hours after authorities announced the capture of a senior al-Qaida terrorist, and a day after Pakistan acknowledged it was considering sending troops to Iraq. Suspicion immediately fell on Islamic militants enraged at President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s support for the U.S.-led war on terror.

Pakistan said the arrest of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani – a Tanzanian with a $25 million bounty on his head in the United States for his alleged role in the 1998 East African embassy attacks – was “a major blow” to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network, and vowed to keep hunting terrorists.

The assassination attempt occurred at about 7:20 p.m. as Aziz – the 60-year-old finance minister who has already been tapped to take over as prime minister – was leaving a rally in Fateh Jang, a town 35 miles southwest of the capital, said Tahir Sadiq, the town’s mayor.

Aziz and Sadiq had just gotten into the bulletproof Mercedes, parked in a crowded area, when a man approached and set off the blast. Aziz’s driver had not yet closed his armored door and was killed, Sadiq told The Associated Press.

“The moment I sat in the car with Aziz there was an explosion,” he said. “He is safe and God Almighty is the greatest protector.”

Two hours after the attack, Aziz – appearing unhurt – told a gathering of supporters outside his Islamabad home that he was all right and would “continue to serve the country with the same commitment and determination.”

About a dozen heavily armed Pakistani soldiers arrived shortly afterward to guard the residence.

Information Minister Shaikh Rashid Ahmed put the death toll at five.

“It was a conspiracy against our democracy but the election process will continue,” he said.

Musharraf, who survived two assassination attempts in December, also condemned the attack and expressed grief over the loss of life. “These cowardly acts will not deter us from our fight against terror,” he said.

Aziz, a former Citibank executive credited with turning around Pakistan’s economy under Musharraf, was in Fateh Jang to campaign for an upcoming by election in an effort to win a seat in the lower house.

Musharraf’s ruling party has said they want him to be prime minister, but the senator must first gain a seat in the Aug. 18 vote to be eligible. A victory is all but assured.

Opposition parties have denounced the proceedings as an affront to Pakistani democracy, five years after Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup.

After Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali stepped down last month – reportedly after disputes with Musharraf – Chaudry Shujaat Hussain was appointed caretaker prime minister while the political machinations are completed to allow Aziz to step in.

The attack also follows two attempts blamed on al-Qaida to assassinate Musharraf, the ultimate powerbroker in this conservative Islamic nation of 150 million people. The second attack was close enough to kill several members of his entourage and more than a dozen passers-by.

Meanwhile, the government said it would consider extraditing Ghailani to America, but only after it completes its interrogation of him. He faces the death penalty of convicted in the United States. A Tanzanian official said his country had not yet decided whether to seek custody of Ghailani, who was arrested Sunday after a 12-hour firefight in the eastern Pakistani city of Gujrat.


Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad and Sadaqat Jan contributed to this report.

AP-ES-07-30-04 1503EDT

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