Pakistan probe targets 3

But investigators cast a wide net for Bhutto's enemies

October 21, 2007|By Laura King | Laura King,Los Angeles Times

KARACHI, Pakistan -- Authorities sifting through clues in the devastating bombing of Benazir Bhutto's homecoming procession questioned three men yesterday, a source close to the investigation said.

The police and Bhutto's associates acknowledged, however, that the list of groups and individuals who might have an interest in harming the pro-Western former prime minister was a long one.

Police circulated a sketch of a man they believed blew himself up only a few feet from the former leader's armored vehicle Thursday, killing at least 136 people and injuring hundreds of others, as she returned from eight years of self-imposed exile.

Some Pakistani newspapers took it a step further, printing graphic photographs of the man's severed head in which his facial features were clearly identifiable.

The three men in custody were picked up in Punjab province, which serves as a home base for several major Pakistani militant groups.

A senior police investigator, speaking on condition of anonymity, said police believed they might have traced a vehicle the bomber used to join in the massive procession.

Bhutto and the authorities have blamed Islamic militants for the attack, but she also suggested possible complicity on the part of some political allies of Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The 54-year-old former leader has complained that measures by local authorities to guard her convoy were inadequate.

Musharraf's government responded angrily yesterday, saying that everything possible had been done to ensure Bhutto's safety but that she had courted danger by insisting on an hours-long open-air procession into the heart of Karachi.

"The government provided the best possible security to her," said Tariq Azim, the minister of state for information.

Bhutto stayed out of sight yesterday, sequestered with aides at her residence in Karachi.

She had planned this weekend to hold a large rally in her family's ancestral hometown of Larkana, where she was to visit the tomb of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The elder Bhutto was hanged in 1979 by then-military ruler Gen. Zia ul-Haq. But all such appearances were on hold while party faithful observed three days of mourning after the attack.

Nearly all of the people killed were either Bhutto supporters who turned out to welcome her or police and security guards who were stationed around her vehicle.

In Karachi, Pakistan's largest city and its commercial center, tensions boiled over as angry Bhutto supporters sought to enforce a closing of shops and businesses in observance of the mourning period. The protesters burned tires and threw stones at shopkeepers who failed to observe the closure.

Police said 14 people suffered gunshot wounds in daylong clashes in several neighborhoods.

Bhutto's camp said the government might use the attack as a pretext for limiting campaign activity in advance of parliamentary elections due by early January. Her Pakistan People's Party is expected to perform strongly in the vote, giving her added leverage in negotiating a power-sharing arrangement with Musharraf.

"I don't see the election process being hindered," Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told reporters. "We owe it to our people to have free and fair elections."

Commentators, however, said that the attack was having a chilling effect on political activity.

The bombing "made it starkly clear that unless the streets are made safe, no free and fair elections can be held in January 2008," the Daily Times newspaper said in an editorial.

Adding to the volatile atmosphere, five people were killed yesterday in a car bombing in the southwestern province of Baluchistan. A previously unknown rebel group claimed responsibility.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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