Karachi: A suicide bomber struck Benazir Bhutto’s convoy, killing over 135 people and leaving nearly 400 injured, in a failed assassination bid on the former Pakistan Prime Minister, who escaped unhurt, hours after her return here from an eight-year self-exile.
There was a grenade explosion followed by a huge blast just about 10-15 ft away from the armoured truck in which 54-year-old Bhutto was sitting as the homecoming procession, which was moving through Karachi roads thronged by thousands of supporters, reached the Karsaz area of the city at around midnight, police said.
Bhutto, who had received death threats from the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda after she had announced her return, was unhurt and rushed to her home, Bilawal House, soon after the deadly explosions, her Pakistan People’s Party said.
“Bhutto is safe and was taken to her home here,” PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar said.
It is a suicide attack, Railway Minister Sheikh Rashid said after one of the deadliest bombings in Pakistan’s history.
Interior Ministry confirmed 70 people dead but hospital sources said nearly 135 have been killed and over 400 injured.
Bhutto has demanded the sacking of the chief of the Intelligence Bureau for failing to prevent the attacks while President Pervez Musharraf has described the bombings as a “conspiracy against democracy” and appealed for calm.
The blasts came despite massive security arrangements, with over 20,000 security personnel being deployed to protect the PPP leader after local Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud warned that suicide bombers would be waiting to “receive” her.
City police chief Azhar Farooqi said a grenade was thrown in the crowd to create panic just before the suicide bomber blew himself.
Bhutto had been waving to the crowds for hours while standing on the truck and the explosion occurred destroying at least two police vans just as she had just climbed down, a Karachi policeman man.
People were seen moving in daze or frantically looking for their loved ones with dismembered bodies strewn around on the road.
Moving amid pools of blood, shattered glass and charred tyres and vehicles, people carried the injured on their shoulders to the nearest vehicle to transport them to hospitals which struggled to attend to the rush.
The government of Sindh province announced that all schools would remain closed today.
“It was an act of terrorism targeting Benazir Bhutto and aimed at sabotaging the democratic process,” Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao said.
Sherpao did not say who might be responsible, while Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari alleged a Pakistani intelligence agency was behind the attack.
“We blame one intelligence agency and we demand action against it... it is not done by militants, it is done by that intelligence agency,” Zardari, who stayed behind in Dubai, told Geo News.
“It is a pattern that would suggest the attack was planned meticulously and conducted expertly -- certainly not by a novice,” he said.
The attack came hours after a teary-eyed Bhutto had set foot on her home soil for the first time after 1999 when she fled Pakistan to escape arrest on graft charges.
Musharraf had promulgated an ordinance early this month that allowed dropping of corruption charges against Bhutto, paving the way for her return apparently under a power-sharing deal.
“We are still fighting a dictatorship,” Bhutto, the first woman ever to lead an Islamic nation, had said on arrival. “We want to isolate extremists and build a better Pakistan.”
Bhutto cancelled plans to address supporters at a rally today.
The United States led global condemnation of the attack.
“There is no political cause that can justify the murder of innocent people.... The United States condemns the violent attack in Pakistan and mourns the loss of innocent life there,” White House national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
Australia said the attack bore the hallmarks of Al-Qaeda. “It is a reminder of the evil of Al-Qaeda,” Prime Minister John Howard said, adding “it is a reminder of how important it is not to concede a victory to them in Iraq or in Afghanistan.”
Expressing shock over the attacks, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he “trusts that all political forces will act together to strengthen national unity.”