Pakistan lays blame on Taliban

Officials say intercept shows role, but Bhutto allies cast doubts

December 29, 2007|By Laura King | Laura King,Los Angeles Times

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- As slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was laid to rest in her ancestral village yesterday, the government of President Pervez Musharraf laid the blame for her assassination on a Taliban commander and said other politicians were also under threat.

The government cited intercepted telephone conversations in pointing the finger at militant leader Baitullah Mehsud, who is believed to operate in the borderlands near Afghanistan. It also blamed him for an earlier attempt on Bhutto's life in October; after that bombing, Bhutto had said she believed rogue elements within the intelligence establishment or the security forces had colluded with Islamic militants in the attack.

In an apparent attempt to deflect anger at Musharraf, who has been accused of failing to provide Bhutto with adequate security against bombers, the government went on to make a startling claim: that she was killed neither by gunshots nor shrapnel in Thursday's attack in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, but instead died of a skull fracture when she hit her head on her SUV's open sunroof. Her supporters scoffed at the assertion.

Violence flared in several Pakistani cities, leaving at least 30 people dead during the first 24 hours after the former prime minister's death. The government deployed thousands of police, paramilitary troops and soldiers across the country, giving those in the most volatile areas shoot-to-kill orders against looters and rioters.

For many, the assassination of the country's best-known political figure was a cataclysmic event, a collectively experienced tragedy. "It's like your Kennedy assassination," said college student Imran Ashfaq, his eyes reddened as he watched the TV news in a nearly deserted teahouse in the capital. "I'll always remember this time."

Much of the country was virtually shut down after the government decreed three days of mourning and Bhutto's followers called for a general strike. In most cities and towns, streets were deserted and shops tightly shuttered; people stayed home from schools and offices.

Pakistani television stations played endless footage of Bhutto, showing old black-and-white photos of her as a gawky teen, a glamorous, reed-thin young woman, a dark-eyed mother cuddling her young children.

Banner headlines in many Pakistani newspapers were unabashedly emotional. "Cry the beloved country," read the headline in the English-language paper The News, its white-on-black type stained red as if with drops of blood. "Farewell Benazir."

In Bhutto's remote home village of Naudero, tens of thousands of weeping, chanting mourners lined the route taken by an ambulance bearing her simple wooden casket. Her husband and three teenage children escorted the body to the family shrine for burial beside her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged nearly three decades ago by the military regime that had overthrown him.

Bhutto's death threw Pakistan's political world into chaos less than two weeks before parliamentary elections that were to have shown the West that this precarious country was moving toward democracy. Yesterday, Prime Minister Mohammedmian Soomro said the government did not plan to postpone the Jan. 8 elections, despite Bhutto's death and boycotts by other politicians.

The Bush administration has pushed for the elections as a way to signal that this vital U.S. ally in the war on terrorism was moving toward true democracy. In the hours after Bhutto's killing, the administration said the elections should go ahead as planned, but yesterday officials backed off that stance.

"We believe that if elections can proceed as scheduled, smoothly and safely, then we would certainly encourage that happening," U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said. "I think regardless of whether they happen the on 8th or some date shortly thereafter, what's important is that there is a certainty on the part of not only Pakistan's political leadership but the Pakistani people that there will be a date certain that they will be choosing their new government and new leadership."

In addition to blaming Taliban leader Mehsud for Bhutto's death, Pakistan's Interior Ministry contradicted reports by witnesses and doctors that Bhutto had been shot and then cut down by a suicide bomber, saying she had been hit by neither bullets nor shrapnel.

"No bullets ... were found in her body," Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema told journalists, saying she was fatally wounded when the percussion of the blast caused Bhutto, who had been standing up in her SUV to wave to supporters, to hit her head on the sunroof's handle.

Incredulous aides to Bhutto rejected the claim. "We all saw what happened to her," said one senior associate, who spoke on condition of anonymity, because he was attending funeral rites that continued into the evening. After the attack, witnesses described seeing a bloodied Bhutto.

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