Bhutto tells of being target of bin Laden

Pakistani says coup, assassination tried

War On Terrorism

The World

October 10, 2001|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

POTOMAC - For at least 12 years, Osama bin Laden has been quietly trying to engineer a fundamentalist takeover of Pakistan, once shipping officials huge bribes stuffed into mango crates and twice attempting to assassinate a former prime minister friendly to the West.

The former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, told her tale of bin Laden's "creeping revolution" in Pakistan during a visit to Maryland yesterday. The man who attempted to kill her, she said, later was convicted of a role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Bin Laden's fundamentalist allies tried to subvert or destroy Bhutto's government at least three times during the 1980s and 1990s, asserted Bhutto, 48, who was the first woman to lead a Muslim nation and later was removed from office over corruption charges.

In 1989, a plane full of crates labeled "mangos" landed in the capital city of Islamabad from Saudi Arabia. Authorities found the crates suspicious, because mangos were not ordinarily exported from Saudi Arabia, Bhutto said.

Opening the crates, Pakistani officials found $10 million in cash. An investigation unraveled a plot to bribe Bhutto allies in Parliament and the military to overthrow her government, Bhutto said.

At first, she said, she suspected Saudi royalty. But it turned out to be a scheme by a member of a wealthy Saudi family, Osama bin Laden, Bhutto said. "That was when I heard the name bin Laden for the first time," she said. "He was the man who tried to overthrow my government."

Bhutto, a charismatic leader who was educated at Radcliffe College and Oxford University, was first elected prime minister in 1988. She was elected twice and lost the post twice, most recently in 1996, over allegations of corruption. Since then, she has been living in self-imposed exile in the United Arab Emirates and England.

She said that fundamentalists constitute about 10 percent of her country of 140 million people, with the majority of the people like her, moderate Muslims who want a democratic society.

But the radical Islamists have support within the Pakistani military, some of whose members fought beside Osama bin Laden and others in the 1980s during Afghanistan's uprising against the Soviet invasion of that country.

Confidence in Musharraf

The former prime minister expressed confidence that the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, which seized power during a coup two years ago, will be stable enough to prevent allies of bin Laden from taking control - a dangerous prospect in a country with nuclear weapons.

Bhutto said she was encouraged when Musharraf reshuffled his military leadership this week to isolate generals who might have sided with the fundamentalists.

"There is a great deal of uncertainty in my country right now," she said. "General Musharraf made the right decision to support the U.S. effort against terrorism, but it has been a divisive one."

As protesters in her country burn American flags to demonstrate their support for bin Laden, Bhutto is touring the United States. She wants to return to her country and run for re-election in October next year and is here in an effort to generate backing among Pakistani-Americans.

Such a return could prove tricky; she is threatened with imprisonment if she goes home.

The rises and falls of her political history are as dramatic as the plot twists of a Shakespere play, and they demonstrate the fragility of government in an impoverished Muslim nation that has become a key ally of the U.S. war on terrorists in neighboring Afghanistan.

Bhutto comes from a political dynasty that has been compared to the Kennedys in the United States. Her father was former Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was thrown out of office in 1977 and executed in 1979.

After years of imprisonment and exile, Benazir Bhutto triumphed when she was elected prime minister in 1988. She instantly became an international figure as the first woman elected to lead a Muslim nation.

But the picture became more complex when she was thrown out of office in 1990, after she and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, were charged with corruption - allegations that Bhutto has maintained were false and politically motivated. Bhutto bounced back to win election again in 1993, but again lost her office amid corruption charges two years later.

Since then, she and her three children, ages 13, 10 and eight, have been living in exile as she plots another comeback. Her husband is imprisoned in Pakistan.

She met with a reporter yesterday in Potomac, in the sumptuous living room of a Pakistani-American physician who has long been a political backer of hers.

"The whole corruption charge was done by the fundamentalists to destroy me. Do you know they have held my husband for eight years in prison, tortured countless people to commit perjury, but there has not been one conviction?" she said.

Intrigue has long been a part of Pakistani political life, as the mango-crate plot illustrates.

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