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Bhutto Says Trade Center Suspect Also Targeted Her : Pakistan: Prime minister says bomb went off prematurely in 1993, injuring plotter instead.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said Saturday that the accused mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing also had plotted to murder her but that the bomb went off prematurely, injuring him instead.

“I want you to know that we have now found out that Mr. Ramzi (Ahmed) Yousef was sent here in Karachi in 1993 to assassinate me,” Bhutto told the Reuters news agency.

“He came here in a car toward this house where we are sitting today,” she was quoted as saying during an interview in the southern Pakistani port city. “But one of the explosives went off accidentally, wounding Ramzi, and he was subsequently taken to a hospital in Karachi.”

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A senior Pakistani official, who spoke on condition he not be identified, said Yousef’s hands were injured in the blast.

Karachi police, however, expressed profound skepticism over the purported assassination bid, and some questioned privately whether Bhutto was not embarking on a public relations gambit less than three weeks before she is due to visit the United States.

Bhutto’s spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, said the attempt on her life took place in September or October, 1993. That would have been several months after the bombing attack on the World Trade Center in Manhattan and shortly before Bhutto was elected prime minister for the second time.

Bhutto said she only learned of the plot on her life after a half-dozen men with alleged links to Yousef were arrested March 11 in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar.

The six arrested men--three Sudanese, an Iranian, a Pakistani and a naturalized Pakistani born in Syria--were picked up after an investigation revealed that Yousef made several telephone calls to them in Peshawar on the eve of his Feb. 7 arrest in Islamabad, the capital.

Yousef, 27, an Iraqi national, was extradited immediately to the United States. He has since pleaded not guilty to charges that he engineered the Feb. 26, 1993, bombing of the World Trade Center that killed six people and injured more than 1,000.

The suspects arrested in Peshawar, none of whom is charged with a serious offense, are now being held at the Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi near Islamabad. During police interrogation, the senior government official said, it was learned that Yousef in 1993 had rented an apartment near Bhutto’s home.

“In the process of investigations, lots of things came up,” the official said. “It has emerged that Yousef showed up in Karachi and was injured while handling explosives.”

He was taken to the Aga Khan Hospital, but authorities did not know his identity at the time, Information Secretary Hussain Haqqani said.

Pakistani officials said Bhutto was targeted by Yousef because she was considered a “moderate” Muslim leader friendly to the West. But Karachi police and senior officials interviewed Saturday did not hide their disbelief of the whole story. Some said Bhutto was evidently trying to cast herself as a victim of terrorism before her official visit in April to Washington.

“No such incident ever took place,” one senior police official said flatly.

For Bhutto to portray herself as the target of the same Islamic militants who sought to strike at targets in New York City could take the heat off mounting criticism in Congress of Pakistan’s role as a training ground and haven for armed Muslim extremists, forces that may also be behind the March 8 ambush-murder of two U.S. diplomatic workers and the wounding of a third in Karachi.

Jameel Yousef, co-chairman of the Citizens Police Liaison Committee, is privy to police and intelligence reports relating to Karachi’s ongoing wave of terrorism and violence. He said Saturday that there had been no written police report of the assassination attempt or of a bomber injuring himself during the time frame mentioned by Bhutto and her subordinates.

“It’s impossible that if he (Ramzi Ahmed Yousef) was wounded during an explosion that the incident went unreported,” Jameel Yousef insisted.

Peppered with reporters’ questions about how such an event could have left no trace in police files, government officials said they did not know how close Yousef actually came to Bhutto’s home, a veritable fortress ringed by a high and thick concrete boundary wall near the Arabian Sea coast.

Times special correspondent Jennifer Griffin in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.


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