Bhutto Assassinated in Attack on Rally

December 27th, 2007 Print Print Email Email

By SALMAN MASOOD and GRAHAM BOWLEY, NYT / December 28, 2007

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — The Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated near the capital, Islamabad, on Thursday. (more…)

By SALMAN MASOOD and GRAHAM BOWLEY, NYT / December 28, 2007

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — The Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated near the capital, Islamabad, on Thursday. Witnesses said Ms. Bhutto, who was appearing at a political rally, was fired upon by a gunman at close range, quickly followed by a blast that the government said was caused by a suicide attacker.

Ms. Bhutto, a former prime minister of Pakistan, was declared dead by doctors at a hospital in Rawalpindi at 6:16 p.m. At least a dozen more people were killed in the attack.

Dr. Abbas Hayat, professor of pathology at Rawalpindi General Hospital where Ms. Bhutto was taken, said doctors tried to revive her for 35 minutes, but that she had shrapnel wounds and head injuries and was in heart failure. He said he could not confirm whether she had bullet injuries.

A close aide to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf blamed Islamic militants for the assassination, and said it was carried out by a suicide bomber. Ms. Bhutto’s death is the latest blow to Pakistan’s treacherous political situation, and leaves her party leaderless in the short term and unable to effectively compete in hotly contested parliamentary elections that are two weeks away, according to Hasan Askari Rizvi, a leading Pakistani political and military analyst.

The assassination also adds to the enormous pressure on the Bush administration over Pakistan, which has sunk billions in aid into the country without accomplishing its main goals of finding Osama bin Laden or ending the activities of Islamic militants and Taliban in border areas with Afghanistan.

Hundreds of supporters had gathered at the political rally, which was being held at Liaqut Bagh, a park that is a common venue for rallies and speeches, in Rawalpindi.

Amid the confusion after the explosion, the site was littered with pools of blood. Shoes and caps of party workers were lying on the asphalt, and shards of glass were strewn about the ground. Pakistani television cameras captured images of ambulances pushing through crowds of dazed and injured people at the scene of the assassination.

CNN reported that witnesses at the scene described the assassin as opening fire on Ms. Bhutto and her entourage, hitting her at least once in the neck and once in the chest, before blowing himself up.

Farah Ispahani, a party official from Ms. Bhutto’s party, said: “It is too soon to confirm the number of dead from the party’s side. Private television channels are reporting twenty dead.” Television channels were also quoting police sources as saying that at least 14 people were dead.

At the hospital where Ms. Bhutto was taken, a large number of police began to cordon off the area as angry party workers smashed windows. Many protesters shouted “Musharraf Dog”. One man was crying hysterically, saying, “O my sister has been killed.” Amid the crowd, dozens of people beat their chests, and chanted slogans against Mr. Musharraf.

Nahid Khan, a close aide to Ms. Bhutto, was crying with swollen eyes in a room next to the operating theater, and the corridors of the hospital swarmed with mourners.

Ms. Bhutto had been warned by the government before her return to Pakistan that she faced threats to her security. In October, Ms. Bhutto survived another deadly suicide attack in the southern city of Karachi on the day she returned from years of self-imposed exile abroad to contest the parliamentary elections. Ms. Bhutto blamed extremist Islamic groups who she said wanted to take over the country for that attack, which narrowly missed her but killed 134 people.

The assassination comes just days after Mr. Musharraf lifted a state of emergency in the country, which he had used to suspend the Constitution and arrest thousands of political opponents, and which he said he had imposed in part because of terrorist threats by extremists in Pakistan.

With frustration in Washington growing over Mr. Musharraf’s shortcomings, and his delays in returning the country to civilian rule, Ms. Bhutto had become an appealing solution. She was openly critical of Mr. Musharraf’s ineffectiveness at dealing with Islamic militants and welcomed American involvement, unlike another Musharraf rival and former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

Bush administration officials began working behind the scenes over the summer to help Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Musharraf create a power-sharing deal to orchestrate a transition to democracy that would leave Mr. Musharraf in the presidency, while not making a mockery of President Bush’s attempts to push democracy in the Muslim world.

Ms. Bhutto’s assassination immediately raised questions about whether the parliamentary elections scheduled for January will now go ahead or be postponed. Mr. Musharraf was carrying out an emergency meeting with top government officials Thursday following Ms. Bhutto’s death, the aide to Mr. Musharraf said. He said no decision had been made on whether to delay the national elections.

The aide dismissed complaints from members of Ms. Bhutto’s party that the government failed to provide adequate security for Ms. Bhutto. Ms. Bhutto herself had complained that the government’s security measures for her Karachi parade were inadequate. The government maintained that she ignored their warnings against such public gatherings and that holding them placed herself and her followers in unnecessary danger.

Asked of the bombing was planned in the country’s lawless tribal areas — where Mr. bin Laden and other Qaeda members are thought to be hiding — the aide said “must be, must be.” Militants based in the country’s tribal areas have carried out a record number of suicide bombings in Pakistani this year.

Ms. Bhutto, 54, returned to Pakistan this year to present herself as the answer to the nation’s troubles: a tribune of democracy in a state that has been under military rule for eight years, and the leader of the country’s largest opposition political party, founded by her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, one of Pakistan’s most flamboyant and democratically inclined prime ministers.

Salman Masood reported from Islamabad, Pakistan, and Graham Bowley and David Rohde from New York.

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