Bhutto defies militants

Ex-premier, target of bombing, vows to press campaign

October 20, 2007|By Laura King | Laura King,Los Angeles Times

KARACHI, Pakistan -- A defiant Benazir Bhutto donned a black armband yesterday and vowed not to be deterred from her quest to bring civilian rule to Pakistan after a suicide attack on her homecoming celebration killed up to 136 supporters.

Some Pakistanis questioned whether the former prime minister had jeopardized the safety of her followers by riding in a slow-moving convoy through streets choked with adoring supporters, particularly in light of death threats made against her by Islamic militants.

But there was a general sense among Pakistanis that Bhutto was a victim of the assassination attempt and not to blame.

President Pervez Musharraf, the military leader who is both Bhutto's rival and prospective political ally, called her yesterday to express condolences, suggesting that the two are trying to avoid antagonism. Both seen as moderates who are friendly to the West, Bhutto and Musharraf have been urged by the Bush administration to reach a power-sharing accord that would serve as the basis for a peaceful transition to civilian rule.

"The attack was not on me. The attack was on what I represent. It was an attack on democracy, and it was an attack on the very unity and integrity of Pakistan," Bhutto told reporters yesterday. "We believe democracy alone can save Pakistan from disintegration and a militant takeover."

Police said an initial investigation pointed to the attack having been the work of a single assailant, who first hurled a hand grenade toward the steel-fortified vehicle carrying Bhutto and dozens of party members, then blew himself up in a thunderous blast only a few feet away. The blast came close enough to singe the eyebrows of Bhutto's aides riding atop the vehicle, though she was not injured.

At the scene of the attack, about five miles from Karachi's international airport, investigators collected evidence, including ball bearings that were used to intensify the blast's deadly effect.

At midday, debris was still scattered over the roadway and median strip, although Karachi traffic was roaring by even as the investigators worked.

Bhutto's vehicle, its sides stained with soot and blood, was hauled away by crane.

The former prime minister returned to Pakistan on Thursday after eight years of self-imposed exile to lead her party in parliamentary elections. She said she had been made aware of the death threats, including warnings that several suicide squads had been dispatched to kill her and her followers.

"There was one suicide squad from Taliban elements, one suicide squad from al-Qaida, one suicide squad from Pakistani Taliban and a fourth, I believe, a group from Karachi," she said yesterday in her first public statement since the attack, which was thought to be the country's worst suicide bombing.

Although Bhutto suggested at her news conference that some officials in Musharraf's administration had failed to sufficiently guard her safety, she stressed that she did not blame the government for the attack against her. She and Pakistani authorities said they believe Islamic militants were responsible.

Families of victims began burying their dead yesterday, while at least a dozen sets of remains were still unclaimed at the city morgue.

Many of the dead and injured were from out of town, having been bused to Karachi by Bhutto's party for the homecoming. Some of the estimated 300 maimed in the blast lay wrapped in the black-red-and-green flags of Bhutto's party.

At her news conference, Bhutto, 54, told how she had descended into the interior of the vehicle only moments before the blast.

Manzoor Mughal, a senior Karachi police official, estimated that the lone attacker had up to 45 pounds of explosives strapped to his body, creating an explosion powerful enough to incinerate at least two police vehicles.

Bhutto, however, told a news conference that there had been at least two assailants and also that shots had been fired in an attempt to disable the vehicle in which she was riding. She was hustled from the scene by aides and security officials.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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