Islamabad: Pakistan accused an Islamic extremist linked to al-Qaida of assassinating Benazir Bhutto and sent the army into the streets to quell a frenzy of violence by her furious supporters that left 27 people dead.
While many grieving Pakistanis turned to violence, hundreds of thousands of others paid their last respects Friday to the popular opposition leader as she was laid to rest beside her father in her family’s marble mausoleum.
“I don’t know what will happen to the country now,” said mourner Nazakat Soomro, 32. Bhutto’s death and the ensuing violence raised concerns that this nuclear-armed nation, plagued by chaos and the growing threat from Islamic militants even before the killing, was in danger of spinning out of control.
The government blamed Bhutto’s killing on al-Qaida militants operating with increasing impunity in the lawless tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan and said it would hunt down those responsible for her death.
“They will definitely be brought to justice,” interior ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said.The government released a transcript of a purported conversation between militant leader Baitullah Mehsud and another militant. “It was a spectacular job. They were very brave boys who killed her,” Mehsud said, according to the transcript.
Cheema described Mehsud as an al-Qaida leader who was also behind the Karachi bomb blast in October against Bhutto that killed more than 140 people and most other recent terrorist attacks in Pakistan.
Mehsud is thought to be the commander of pro-Taliban forces in the tribal region of South Waziristan, where al-Qaida fighters are also active. In the transcript, Mehsud gives his location as Makin, a town in South Waziristan.
This fall, he was quoted in a Pakistani newspaper as saying that he would welcome Bhutto’s return from exile with suicide bombers. Mehsud later denied that in statements to local television and newspaper reporters.
Cheema announced the formation of two inquiries into Bhutto’s death, one to be carried out by a high court judge and another by security forces.
Bhutto was killed Thursday evening when a suicide attacker shot at her and then blew himself up as she left a rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi near Islamabad. Authorities initially said she died from bullet wounds, and a surgeon who treated her said the impact from shrapnel on her skull killed her.
But Cheema said she was killed when she tried to duck back into the armoured vehicle during the attack, and the shock waves from the blast smashed her head into a lever attached to the sunroof, fracturing her skull, he said.
He showed reporters a videotape of the attack, which showed Bhutto waving, smiling and chatting with supporters from the sunroof as her vehicle sat unmoving on the street outside the rally. Three gunshots rang out, the camera appeared to fall and the video, which Cheema said was filmed by authorities, then stopped.
Denying charges the government failed to give her adequate security protection, Cheema said it was Bhutto who made herself vulnerable and pointed out that the other passengers inside Bhutto’s bombproof vehicle were fine.
“I wish she had not come out of the rooftop of her vehicle,” he said. Bhutto’s death plunged the nation deep into turmoil less than two weeks before parliamentary elections and sparked deadly rioting that killed at least 27 people, according to an Interior Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Desperate to quell the violence, the government sent troops into the streets of Hyderabad, Karachi and other areas in Sindh. In Hyderabad, the soldiers refused to let people out of their homes, witnesses said.
The army positioned 20 battalions of troops for deployment across Sindh if they were needed to stop the violence, according to a military statement. Paramilitary rangers were also given the authority to use live fire to stop rioters from damaging property in the region, said Maj. Asad Ali, the rangers’ spokesman.
“We have orders to shoot on sight,” he said. Many cities were nearly deserted as businesses closed and public transportation came to a halt at the start of three days of national mourning for Bhutto.
Prime Minister Mohammedmian Soomro said the government had no immediate plans to postpone 8Jan parliamentary elections, despite the violence and the decision by Nawaz Sharif, another opposition leader, to boycott the poll.
“Right now the elections stand where they were,” he told a news conference. The United States, which sees Pakistan as a crucial ally in the war on terror, was counting on President Pervez Musharraf to proceed with the vote in the hope it will cement steps toward restoring democracy after the six week state of emergency he declared last month.
Keeping the election on track was the biggest immediate concern in sustaining an American policy of promoting stability, moderation and democracy in Pakistan, U.S. officials said Friday.
Bhutto’s death left her populist party without a clear successor. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who was freed in December 2004 after eight years in detention on graft charges, is one contender to head the party although he lacks the cachet of being a blood relative from the Bhutto clan’s political dynasty.
Throughout the day, hundreds of thousands of mourners arrived in Bhutto’s hometown of Garhi Khuda Bakhsh in tractors, buses, cars and jeeps for her funeral cortege and burial.
Bhutto’s plain wood coffin, draped in the red, green and black flag of her Pakistan People’s Party, was carried in a white ambulance toward the marble mausoleum, about five kilometers (three miles) away, passing a burning passenger train on the way. Many of the mourners threw petals toward the ambulance. Women beat their heads and chests in grief.
An imam led the mourners in prayers and Bhutto’s son, Bilawal, and her widowed husband helped lift the coffin into the grave beside that of her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, another popular former prime minister who met a violent death.“As long as the moon and sun are alive, so is the name of Bhutto,” supporters chanted.