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Deadly blasts scar Bhutto homecoming

Times Staff Writer

What had been a joyous homecoming Thursday for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto turned to a scene of blood and chaos hours later as a pair of blasts ripped through the crowd surrounding her convoy, killing more than 125 people and injuring at least 250, according to police and hospital officials. Bhutto was unhurt, her party said.

More than 150,000 people had packed the streets of this port city to greet the 54-year-old former leader, who returned home to a huge and raucous welcome after eight years in self-imposed exile. The bombings hit shortly after midnight as her convoy was moving slowly through the throng toward the mausoleum of Pakistan’s founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, where Bhutto was to have delivered a triumphal address early today.

Screams erupted from the close-packed crowd as the two explosions rang out fewer than 20 yards from the truck carrying Bhutto. The first blast was followed by a much larger one, witnesses said, and flames leaped into the air. Charred bodies and the wounded lay in the streets, as Bhutto was whisked away by aides and security officials.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, but before her return, Islamic militants had threatened violence against Bhutto, who is seen as a pro-Western moderate. Pakistani cities have been hit hard in the last year by suicide attacks, but this was by far the deadliest.

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Until the bombings, the focus of the homecoming had been the highly fraught relationship between Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf, who remains the chief of Pakistan’s powerful military. The two have been trying, with the blessing of the United States, to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement.

Musharraf, under pressure to quit his army post, has signaled determination to retain a share of power for himself, in uniform or not. Bhutto, for her part, has been trying to soothe anger among her supporters over her dealings with a man she has described as a dictator.

The attacks, and the grisly tableau left behind, quickly overshadowed that. Streets near the blast site, either darkened or eerily illuminated by floodlights, were carpeted with broken glass, plastic sandals and posters of Bhutto.

“No, no, no, no,” wailed Johar Ramazan, his tunic and trousers bloodied. Wandering distractedly in circles more than an hour after the blasts, he said he had become separated from his companions.

Bhutto was taken to Bilawal House, her residential compound in downtown Karachi that is adjacent to her party headquarters. Photographs by the Associated Press showed her being helped from her vehicle in the blasts’ aftermath, appearing dazed but uninjured.

Emergency vehicles, with the crowds eddying around them, ferried the wounded and dead to two nearby hospitals in the city center.

Because it was difficult for ambulances to make their way through the throng, some men picked up wounded and slung them across the backs of motorbikes. Others carried the injured in their arms.

At the city’s main Jinnah Hospital, shrouded corpses were laid in rows outside the emergency entrance. As doctors and paramedics hurried to meet arriving casualties, a weeping woman plucked at the sleeve of one, describing her husband and asking repeatedly whether anyone had seen him.

“Sister, are you hurt?” the doctor said, gently moving away from her. “If not, I must help these others.”

A Pakistani cameraman and more than a dozen police officers were reported to be among the dead. Police vehicles escorting Bhutto’s convoy appeared to have taken the brunt of the blasts.

Bhutto, together with dozens of aides and supporters, made most of the journey from the airport on an open platform mounted atop a truck whose front and sides were steel- reinforced as a protection against blasts. It was fitted with a bulletproof cubicle, but she was not using it.

Just before the bombings, Bhutto had gone down into an inside compartment for a break, British journalist Christina Lamb, who was traveling in the convoy, told the BBC.

The convoy had been on the road for more than nine hours when the attack occurred, slowly making its way from the airport to the city center along Karachi’s main boulevard. By midnight, it had covered only about half the 10-mile distance to the mausoleum.

Bhutto’s party had worked hard to bring tens of thousands of supporters to Karachi, the country’s largest city, to welcome her, not only to commemorate an emotional homecoming but as a calculated show of political strength.

In hours of waiting under a blazing sun, crowds of Bhutto’s followers sang and danced to scratchy amplified music, waving the green-red-and-black flag of the Pakistan People’s Party. Her image was plastered onto every available surface -- concrete walls, tree trunks, lampposts, the backs of chugging motorized rickshaws.

“She is our sister, our mother, our friend, our protector,” said Abdullah Rehman, a 42-year-old laborer who spent the night on a thin mat in hope of catching a glimpse of Bhutto.

Making her way down the jetway after her commercial flight arrived in the early afternoon from the Persian Gulf city of Dubai, Bhutto lifted her hands in a prayerful gesture and raised her face to the sky, her familiar white veil slipping backward over her black hair. Tears sprang to her eyes as she stepped onto the tarmac.

“I feel proud, so very proud of the people of Pakistan,” Bhutto told reporters as her cavalcade set off for the center of Karachi.

Bhutto’s arrival comes at a moment when Musharraf’s grip on leadership is at the weakest since he seized power in a 1999 coup. His popularity is at an all-time low, and his reelection this month as president by Pakistani lawmakers is under legal challenge by opponents.

But the 64-year-old general is far from a spent force. He appears to retain both the loyalty of Pakistan’s powerful military and the patronage of the United States, which nudged him and Bhutto toward a deal that would allow the former prime minister to return home without facing corruption charges stemming from her two terms in office.

The Bush administration sees both Musharraf and Bhutto as Western-friendly moderates who can be counted upon to continue the fight against Taliban and Al Qaeda militants who have ensconced themselves in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border.

Mindful, perhaps, of resentment in Pakistan over perceived American meddling in domestic politics, the White House declined to comment directly on Bhutto’s return. Press Secretary Dana Perino said the United States hoped for a “peaceful, democratic Pakistan, an Islamic state that is a moderate force in the region, and one that can be an ally to help us fight extremism and radicalism.”

Later, U.S. officials condemned the attacks.

America “mourns the loss of innocent life there,” said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council. “Extremists will not be allowed to stop Pakistanis from selecting their representatives through an open and democratic process.”

Before the bombings, security for Bhutto’s arrival had appeared simultaneously omnipresent and somewhat lax. More than 20,000 police and paramilitary troops were deployed to protect her and control the crowds, but they largely stood by as her supporters overran barricades and surged toward the terminal of Karachi’s international airport.

Authorities had urged Bhutto to consider traveling by helicopter to the city center to avoid prolonged exposure to crowds, but she declined.

Those in her entourage were nervous. About two hours before the bombings, her party complained to city officials that the streetlights had gone off, making it difficult to spot any potential assailants.

Before her departure from Dubai, the United Arab Emirates’ main city, Bhutto brushed aside threats against her, but they are now likely to shadow her as she leads her party into parliamentary elections scheduled to take place by mid-January.

“It’s treacherous ground to be on, public life in Pakistan,” analyst Nasim Zehra said before the attack occurred. “The vulnerability factor will always be there.”

The bombings raised difficult new questions as to whether candidates such as Bhutto would be able to hold mass rallies and otherwise appear in public without risking their lives and those of their followers.

Some commentators wondered aloud whether the scale of the attack might give Musharraf a pretext for declaring martial law, a step he had considered as his political troubles mounted.

On the best of days, Karachi’s battered infrastructure barely withstands the weight of its 15-million-plus population and its frenzied pace of commerce. Bhutto’s homecoming virtually shut down the city, with schools closed and many shops and businesses shuttered. Those who could not push their way close to the parade route watched daylong live coverage on Pakistani TV channels.

Not everyone, though, was caught up in the excitement.

“I feel a little bit detached, even though it’s an important day in my country,” said 23-year-old student Zubair Ghazi, his crisp blue-striped shirt wilting in Karachi’s steamy heat. “I’m not sure this is a sign of real change, even though so many people hope it will be.”

Bhutto’s return initially drew a disdainful reaction from the party of Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister, who was summarily deported from Pakistan when he tried to return from exile Sept. 10. Sharif was bundled onto a plane for Saudi Arabia without ever making it out of the terminal of the international airport in Islamabad, the capital, despite a Supreme Court order that he be allowed to return unimpeded.

Sharif’s followers have denounced Bhutto for making an amnesty deal with Musharraf that many expect will lead to a power-sharing accord with the general.

“I’m only sorry he [Musharraf] didn’t come out in uniform to salute her,” Sharif’s politician brother, Shahbaz, speaking from London, sarcastically told Pakistan’s Dawn television.

But all sides closed ranks in the face of the attack. Sharif’s party, along with the government and other major political parties, condemned the bombings.

Bhutto, still engaged in negotiations with Musharraf, has said repeatedly that the talks are meant to bring about a peaceful transition from military to civilian rule. Pressure from her is widely credited with winning a pledge from Musharraf to relinquish his post as military leader before his inauguration as president in mid-November.

But that inauguration will not take place if the Supreme Court rules his Oct. 6 election by lawmakers to have been invalid. If that were to happen, almost no one believes Musharraf would voluntarily give up his army role.

“At such a juncture, I wouldn’t expect him to walk away -- I think he would use unconstitutional methods to stay in power,” independent political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi said. “And if that happened, there would have to be a confrontation between Benazir and Musharraf -- she couldn’t support that.”

Even for Bhutto’s devout supporters, a potential pact with Musharraf has been difficult to swallow, especially in light of the fact that her prime minister father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto -- still a revered figure here -- was deposed and hanged by a military ruler, Gen. Zia ul-Haq. She has said his 1979 execution galvanized her to enter politics.

“Look at her father -- he preferred to be hanged rather than compromise with a dictator,” said Ghulam Mustafa Khar, a senior politician who broke with Bhutto over the talks with Musharraf. “She has done damage to the party, and to herself.”

Others, though, saw the homecoming’s scope and scale, before the attack, as an opportunity for Bhutto to reestablish her political identity.

“Being greeted by hundreds of thousands of people will boost her confidence,” said Absar Alam, the Islamabad bureau chief for Pakistan’s independent Geo television. “Musharraf won’t like his power to be diluted by anyone, but she will go for more and more power and authority once she is back in government.”

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laura.king@latimes.com

Times staff writer James Gerstanzang in Washington contributed to this report.


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