Explanation received skeptically

Government's version of former premier's killing spurs more questions, observers say


December 30, 2007|By Laura King | Laura King,Los Angeles Times

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The circumstances of Benazir Bhutto's assassination suggest either that Islamic militants based in Pakistan are able to act with near-total impunity, or that elements within the government of President Pervez Musharraf have been complicit in attacks, or both, analysts and Western diplomats say.

The government's version of events surrounding the attack that killed the popular former prime minister Thursday raises many more questions than it answers, these observers said. Its nearly instantaneous identification of a culprit and eagerness to assert that Bhutto had not been shot left some observers troubled about the motives of a government that is a trusted U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.

The violent death of Bhutto, 54, a figure on whom the West pinned hopes of a moderate, democratic Pakistan, was a watershed event in a nuclear-armed state that faces an Islamic insurgency not only in its semi-autonomous tribal border regions, but also in the streets of its most cosmopolitan cities.

The aftermath will have long-lasting repercussions not only inside Pakistan, but in neighboring Afghanistan as well, where Western troops are battling a fractured but determined Taliban movement. Any significant destabilization of Pakistan carries risks for the region, analysts said.

Yesterday, with mourning rites for Bhutto still taking place at her ancestral home, her party angrily contested government assertions that she had been killed neither by bullets that witnesses said a gunman fired from only a few yards away, nor by shrapnel from the blast that rocked her armored vehicle moments later. Instead, a government spokesman said the force of the blast was such that she hit her head hard enough to suffer a fatal skull fracture.

"That's dangerous nonsense," said Sherry Rehman, a senior official in the Pakistan People's Party who was traveling in the vehicle immediately behind Bhutto's, who made the frantic drive to the closest hospital, and who viewed Bhutto's body after doctors made fruitless efforts to save her.

Rehman said that gunshot entry and exit wounds were visible on Bhutto's head and neck and that she was bleeding uncontrollably on the trip to the hospital.

Western diplomats, too, said they found the government statements worrying in their wider implications.

"It's not only that this is not a credible account of what happened - that's obvious on the face of it," said a diplomat familiar with security matters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"It's that it raises questions about why the government is so extraordinarily eager to avoid acknowledging the role of a gunman, whether or not the wounds were fatal," the diplomat said.

Several analysts familiar with the tactics of militant groups in Pakistan said the use of a handgun in addition to self-detonated explosives represented a departure from trademark methods of groups operating here.

"This is not by any means a signature killing by al-Qaida," security analyst Nasim Zehra said. "A targeted shooting, even in combination with a familiar suicide bombing, makes it look more like a political killing than one by some militant group."

Others, however, said that Pakistan's militant organizations have often shown themselves capable of adapting to changing circumstances and adjusting their attack profile accordingly.

"Obviously, they were studying her movements in the course of the political campaign," said Ikram Sehgal, a former military officer turned analyst. "Inside the rally, it was relatively secure; her problem was entering and leaving. She was highly vulnerable at that time."

"It was done very professionally," Sehgal added. "It was a `hit.'"

That degree of professionalism suggests, to some observers, the hand of Pakistan's security apparatus, which in the past has aided and abetted militant groups, including the Taliban.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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