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Bhutto’s death triggers violence and heightens instability

Times Staff Writer

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the charismatic opposition leader who had promised to restore democracy in Pakistan, set off a nationwide wave of grief and fury Thursday and raised the specter of violent unrest that could threaten the government of U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf.

At least 20 other people died in the assault just outside the main gates of a Rawalpindi park where Pakistan’s first prime minister was assassinated in 1951.

The attack occurred with devastating speed, and even witnesses in the vehicle just behind Bhutto’s were unsure of the precise sequence of events. Several onlookers said they saw the blurred figure of a wiry-looking gunman dash toward the vehicle, fire at Bhutto and then blow himself up, but others believed there were two assailants.

As her three-car convoy drove along a busy main road parallel to the park, Bhutto, 54, made the fatal decision to stand up and wave to well-wishers, her head and chest protruding from the SUV’s sunroof. Struck by at least two bullets, she collapsed, bleeding, onto the seat before the explosion hit, charring her bulletproof vehicle.

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No group immediately claimed responsibility for the assassination, but Islamic extremists had repeatedly threatened the progressive-minded Bhutto, the Muslim world’s first female prime minister.

Musharraf called on his compatriots to remain calm; demonstrators, however, aimed their rage at the former general, whom Bhutto often called a dictator. “Musharraf is a dog!” protesters shouted at the hospital where Bhutto died. “Killer, killer!” others chanted.

In intense but scattered violence, nine people were reported killed in rioting overnight. In the southern port city of Karachi, Bhutto’s hometown and stronghold, protesters set cars, buses and trains ablaze. Pakistani media reported that local government buildings and banks were torched in several towns.

The assassination, in the city that is the headquarters of the Pakistani military, raised fears that Musharraf would once again assume sweeping powers to keep order, and sparked debate over whether parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8 should be delayed.

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On Nov. 3, he declared a state of emergency, akin to martial law, suspending the constitution and using broad police powers to round up thousands of opponents. Musharraf, a key ally in the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” ended the emergency rule Dec. 15.

Within hours of her death, Bhutto’s body, in a plain wooden coffin, was flown to her ancestral home in the south, Larkana. Party officials said the funeral would be held today, in keeping with the Muslim tradition of swift burial. Mourners, many trekking on foot and wailing as they went, were already converging on the remote town.

She was to be buried in the same mausoleum as her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged in 1979 by the military leader who had overthrown him. Days after her return to Pakistan in October, Bhutto had visited his grave to pay homage, scattering rose petals on the white marble tomb.

In some ways, hers was a death foretold. Bhutto had spoken often about the prospect of a violent end at the hands of Islamic extremists or other assailants. She did so again just before the attack that killed her.

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“I risked my life and came here because I believe our country is in danger,” Bhutto told a crowd of flag-waving supporters Thursday at the election rally.

Bhutto had said that she believed rogue elements in the government had conspired in a previous attack in October hours after she returned to her homeland. She escaped injury in that massive bombing, in which a suicide attacker struck her convoy in Karachi, killing more than 140 people.

From the beginning, security concerns had shadowed Bhutto’s election campaign. Despite repeated warnings that she could be targeted, and her bitter complaints about the lack of adequate protection from the government, the former prime minister had insisted on her right to appear at the big open-air rallies that are the mainstay of Pakistani politics.

Those entering the leafy, gated Liaquat Park where Bhutto’s last rally was held encountered some security barriers. Everyone had to pass through metal detectors and undergo a body search, with female police officers frisking the women.

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But the police presence was relatively light; Bhutto’s private guards, cradling automatic weapons, hustled her on and off the stage and kept watch over the crowd. And once she left the rally grounds, there was no police escort, only Bhutto’s own force of volunteer guards surrounding her car, putting their bodies between her and any attacker.

In the aftermath of the October attack in Karachi, many U.S. politicians had sought increased security for Bhutto in appeals to Musharraf and the White House. Critics have said U.S. officials handed the task to the Musharraf government without checking to ensure that improvements were made.

The assassination represents a blow to the Bush administration, which has been Musharraf’s chief backer. U.S. officials had pushed Musharraf and Bhutto to reach a power-sharing agreement in order to stabilize the nuclear-armed country and intensify the effort against Islamic fundamentalists in the nation’s border regions, where some believe Osama bin Laden has taken shelter.

Bhutto’s talks with Musharraf foundered after he twice placed her under house arrest, but American officials had hoped that the two could still reach a detente. President Bush was told of the assassination during his morning intelligence briefing at his ranch near Crawford, Texas. “The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan’s democracy,” he said, reading a statement.

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“Those who committed this crime must be brought to justice.”

Thursday’s carefully choreographed attack against Bhutto was without mercy. Aides said they believed the gunshot wounds Bhutto suffered probably would have been fatal even without the subsequent fiery blast.

“I saw the flash, heard the boom, and there were people with their limbs missing, all of them on the ground,” said Ghulam Mustafa, who was yards away when the attack took place. The ground was littered with charred debris, shoes and scraps of clothing in congealing pools of blood.

Screaming, weeping supporters converged on Rawalpindi General Hospital, where Bhutto was rushed after the attack.

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Doctors performed emergency surgery, but Bhutto went into cardiac arrest and her heart could not be restarted, said Dr. Abbas Hayat, head of the hospital’s pathology department.

She was pronounced dead at 6:16 p.m., about an hour after the attack.

The hospital’s plate-glass front doors were shattered by the crush of people trying to enter. They flooded into the foyer and up the stairs leading to the operating rooms. Some beat their chests and howled with grief. Attendants carrying stretchers bearing people wounded in the attack were forced to push their way through the crowd.

“She has expired, this dear, dear woman, and I cannot think now what will happen to our country,” said Sardar Saleem, a former senator who had been seated on the dais with Bhutto at the rally. Tears ran down his cheeks and splashed onto his sweater.

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Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, flew in from the United Arab Emirates with their three children to collect her body and take it to Larkana.

The country was immediately put on a heightened level of alert. Police and paramilitary troops poured into the streets, and long into the night helicopters hovered over Rawalpindi and adjoining Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. But police generally gave protesters a wide berth, apparently fearful of further inflaming them.

Musharraf, who recently stepped down as military chief to become a civilian president, ordered three days of mourning.

“This is the work of those terrorists with whom we are engaged in war,” the Pakistani leader, grim-faced, said in a nationally televised speech. “I have been saying that the nation faces the greatest threats from these terrorists. . . . We will not rest until we eliminate these terrorists and root them out.”

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Bhutto’s death leaves a leadership void within her Pakistan People’s Party, the country’s largest political group. Within the party, she was an autocratic figure, sidelining opponents and grooming no successor. She made herself “chairperson for life.”

She was a child of privilege, born into a wealthy landowning clan, educated at Harvard and Oxford. But she knew pain and privation as well, spending years in squalid jails or in exile before making her first triumphal return to Pakistan in 1986, seven years after her father was executed. She was twice elected prime minister, and twice removed on charges of incompetence and corruption.

Bhutto could be cold and imperious, but her charisma was undeniable.

At Thursday’s rally, followers waited excitedly for a glimpse of her, pressing themselves close to the barbed-wire security fence that separated her from the crowd.

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They shouted out a chant that seemed chilling in retrospect: “Bhutto is alive!” It was a reference to her slain father.

The election rally was Bhutto’s first public appearance in Rawalpindi since her return to Pakistan after eight years in self-imposed exile. She had planned a mass protest here last month against emergency rule, but the government canceled it, citing the threat of a suicide attack, and briefly placed Bhutto under house arrest when she tried to go ahead anyway.

Bhutto’s death will inevitably complicate Pakistan’s already fraught internal politics. The first question was whether the parliamentary elections would go forward next month. Some opponents said they would boycott the elections and the government was considering delaying the vote.

The elections were expected to be a three-way contest among the parties led by Bhutto; Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister and opposition leader; and Musharraf.

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No party had been expected to score a clear triumph; most observers saw the elections resulting in some sort of power-sharing agreement between Bhutto and Musharraf, with her as prime minister.

For a short period after the attack, Bhutto was reported to be unhurt or only slightly wounded. But in the darkened streets of Rawalpindi, word of her death spread rapidly, from one knot of people to another.

“The Mohtarma is dead, she is dead!” one man cried over and over in a voice made hoarse by grief, using the honorific meaning “respected madam” that Bhutto’s followers always employed.

Fellow opposition leader Sharif, ashen-faced, arrived at the hospital soon after Bhutto was pronounced dead. Sharif said his party would boycott the elections, and called for her death to be “avenged.”

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Although Sharif and Bhutto had clashed sharply over how best to confront Musharraf, Sharif’s backers said they mourned her as one of their own.

“The whole nation is crying,” said Sharif supporter Ibrahim Bhutt, whose own eyes were red with tears.

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laura.king@latimes.com

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Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Crawford, Texas, contributed to this report.


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