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Far from case closed in Pakistan

Times Staff Writer

The circumstances of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination suggest either that Islamic militants based in Pakistan are able to act with near-total impunity or that elements within the government of President Pervez Musharraf have been complicit in attacks, or both, analysts and Western diplomats say.

The government’s version of events surrounding the attack Thursday that killed the popular former prime minister raises many more questions than it answers, these observers said. The nearly instantaneous naming of a culprit and eagerness to assert that Bhutto had not been shot left some observers troubled about the motives of a government that is a trusted ally in the Bush administration’s “war on terror.”

The violent death of Bhutto, 54, on whom the West had pinned hopes of a moderate, democratic Pakistan, is a watershed event in a nuclear-armed state that faces a roiling Islamic insurgency not only in its mostly lawless tribal border regions, but in the streets of its most cosmopolitan cities.

The assassination will have long-lasting repercussions not only in Pakistan, but in neighboring Afghanistan as well, where Western troops are battling a fractured but determined Taliban movement. Any significant destabilization of Pakistan would carry risks for the entire region, analysts said.

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On Saturday, with mourning rites still taking place at Bhutto’s ancestral home, her party angrily contested government assertions that she had been killed neither by bullets that witnesses said a gunman fired from only a few yards away nor by shrapnel from the suicide bombing that rocked her armored vehicle moments later. Instead, a government spokesman said the force of the blast was such that she hit her head so hard that she suffered a fatal skull fracture.

“That’s dangerous nonsense,” said Sherry Rehman, a senior official in the Pakistan People’s Party who was in the vehicle immediately behind Bhutto’s, accompanied her on the frantic drive to the closest hospital and viewed her body after doctors declared her dead.

Rehman said entry and exit wounds from gunshots were visible on Bhutto’s head and neck, and that she was bleeding uncontrollably on the way to the hospital.

Western diplomats, too, said they found the government statements worrying in their wider implications.

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“It’s not only that this is not a credible account of what happened -- that’s obvious on the face of it,” said a diplomat familiar with security matters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It’s that it raises questions about why the government is so extraordinarily eager to avoid acknowledging the role of a gunman, whether or not the wounds were fatal. At the very least, it’s puzzling,” the diplomat said.

Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said that if Bhutto’s party had doubts about the government’s conclusion on the cause of her death, it was ready to perform an autopsy if it got permission to exhume her body. Bhutto was buried Friday.

Late Saturday, new images of the attack emerged when the Dawn television channel aired still photos taken by an amateur photographer that show a cleanshaven young man in sunglasses aiming a pistol at Bhutto’s back from several yards away. Immediately behind him is a man in a white shawl who the channel said is believed to be the suicide bomber.

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Several analysts said the use of a handgun in addition to explosives is a departure for militant groups in Pakistan. “This is not by any means a signature killing by Al Qaeda,” security analyst Nasim Zehra said. “A targeted shooting, even in combination with a familiar suicide bombing, makes it look more like a political killing than one by some militant group.”

Others, however, noted that Pakistan’s militant organizations have shown themselves capable of adapting to circumstances.

“Obviously, they were studying her movements in the course of the political campaign,” said Ikram Sehgal, a former military officer turned analyst. “Inside the rally, it was relatively secure; her problem was entering and leaving. She was highly vulnerable at that time.

“It was done very professionally,” Sehgal added. “It was a ‘hit.’ ”

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That degree of professionalism suggests to some experts the hand of Pakistan’s security apparatus, which has previously aided and abetted militant groups, including the Taliban.

“The [security] agencies have ongoing connections with the militants,” said security analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, who has written extensively about the Pakistani military. “It’s very simplistic to talk about the militants doing this and doing that, all the while acting alone.”

The government has pointed the finger at Baitullah Mahsud, a local Taliban commander based in Waziristan, the most strife-torn of the tribal areas on the Pakistani side of the Afghan border. On Saturday, Mahsud issued a vehement denial.

“It is against tribal customs and traditions to kill a woman,” Mahsud’s spokesman, who calls himself Maulana Omar, said by telephone, speaking from an undisclosed location.

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The government had released a transcript of a purported conversation between Mahsud and another militant leader in which they appear to make reference to the assassination and the second commander offered his congratulations.

Another Western diplomat familiar with the Pakistani security services’ extensive electronic surveillance operations said that if the transcript was genuine, it was highly unlikely that the eavesdropping began with this particular conversation.

“That raises the question: What precisely was known about his activities and plans up until now?” the diplomat said.

Mahsud has been known to reach accommodations with the government. In 2005, he agreed to a truce in South Waziristan, promising his men would not attack Pakistani soldiers, though the pact later collapsed.

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The government has sought to put the blame for security lapses on Bhutto and her party, particularly her decision to stand up through her SUV’s sunroof as she left the rally. Others in the bulletproof vehicle survived with relatively light injuries, as did those riding in the other cars in her convoy.

But whether or not rogue elements of the security forces were involved or there was deliberate negligence on the part of the authorities, the attackers demonstrated a keen ability and determination to get their target.

“I think this degree of impunity, the fact that they are able to hold the whole country ransom and terrorize the population -- all this is definitely a new level of threat and danger,” said author and analyst Ahmed Rashid, who has written extensively about the Taliban and other militant groups.

The enormous wave of popular revulsion over the assassination could spur demands that the government end once and for all its shadowy dealings with militant groups, some predicted.

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“There have been alliances in the past, but a line should be drawn: no dealings with them in any way,” said Omar Qureishi, the op-ed editor of the English-language paper the News.

The government has promised an exhaustive investigation, but as it did following an attack in Karachi on Bhutto’s homecoming procession in October that killed more than 140 people, it has declined international assistance.

“We best understand our own environment,” said Cheema, the Interior Ministry spokesman. “Scotland Yard cannot go to Waziristan. They don’t know the language or the customs.”

Observers say that the methods employed by Pakistani investigators have probably already allowed crucial forensic evidence to be destroyed.

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State television showed pictures of police officers, wearing latex gloves, combing the scene Saturday, picking up pieces of debris and carefully depositing them in evidence bags.

But immediately after Thursday’s attack, senior police inspectors had looked on as pressure hoses were used to wash the pavement, which was sticky with blood and strewn with broken glass. In the area where a gunman’s spent shell casings probably would have fallen, all was swept into the torrent of bloodstained water.

“How do we find out who killed Benazir?” analyst Siddiqa said. “I don’t know that we ever will.”

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laura.king@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.


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