By Martin Petty
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on Saturday a suicide bombing that wounded his intelligence chief was planned in the Pakistani city of Quetta and that the issue would be raised with Islamabad.
Karzai stopped short of directly blaming neighboring Pakistan, a regional power seen as critical to U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan before NATO combat troops leave by the end of 2014.
On Thursday, a suicide bomber posing as a peace messenger wounded Afghanistan's intelligence chief, Asadullah Khalid, dealing a blow to a nascent reconciliation process. The bomb was hidden in the attacker's underwear, said Karzai.
"Of course we will be seeking clarification from Pakistan because we know this man who came in the name of a guest to meet Asadullah Khalid came from Pakistan. We know that for a fact," said Karzai.
"We will be firmly and clearly seeking clarification and asking for any information that they may have."
Pakistan's government said it would assist in any investigation, but urged Karzai to provide evidence before making such statements.
"Before leveling charges, the Afghan government would do well if they shared information or evidence with the government of Pakistan that they might have with regard to the cowardly attack on (Khalid)," said a spokesman for Pakistan's foreign ministry.
"They would also do well by ordering an investigation into any lapses in the security arrangements around (Khalid)."
The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for the operation, although it often makes exaggerated claims about attacks on foreign troops or government targets.
"BIGGER" HANDS BEHIND ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT
Karzai said the militant Islamist group was not behind the attack in the heart of the capital, Kabul.
"Apparently the Taliban claimed responsibility like many other attacks but such a complicated attack and a bomb hidden inside his body, this is not Taliban work," Karzai said.
"It's a completely professional (job) ... Taliban cannot do that and there are bigger and professional hands involved in it."
Karzai said the issue would be discussed next week with Pakistani officials during a meeting between the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey in Ankara.
"This is a very important issue for us and we hope that the Pakistan government in this regard gives us accurate information and cooperates seriously, so the doubts we have end," he said.
Karzai said contacts with Pakistan would continue.
Ties between Kabul and Islamabad have been strained by cross-border raids by militant groups and accusations that Pakistan's intelligence agency backs Afghan insurgent groups to advance its interests in the country.
Pakistan denies the accusations and says it is committed to helping bring peace to Afghanistan.
The leadership of the Afghan Taliban fled to Quetta after their government was toppled by NATO-backed Afghan forces in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Pakistan denies Taliban leaders live in Quetta.
The attack on Khalid was almost a carbon copy of last year's assassination of Afghanistan's chief peace negotiator, Burhanuddin Rabbani.
He died at his Kabul home when an insurgent posing as a peace envoy detonated explosives concealed in a turban.
Pakistan recently sent strong signals it would put its weight behind the Afghan government's efforts to draw the Taliban into negotiations after more than a decade of war.
In November, Pakistan released 13 mid-level Afghan Taliban officials it had detained, meeting demands by Kabul, which has repeatedly pushed for access to prominent insurgents.
Then officials from both countries said Pakistan would consider freeing former Afghan Taliban second-in-command Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar if lower-ranking figures who were released advance the peace process.
Afghan officials believe he may command enough respect to persuade the Taliban to engage in formal talks with the Kabul government.
"Pakistan must prove by releasing these senior Taliban leaders that Pakistan is interested in a real and genuine peace process," said Karzai. "So that release is very much demanded and I would like to repeat it again today."
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Paul Tait, Jeremy Laurence and Jason Webb)