New questions emerge about killing of Bhutto

Witness says crowd stopped motorcade, suggesting a plot

January 12, 2008|By McClatchy-Tribune

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Two new reports on the assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto last month suggest that the killing might have been a plot rather than an isolated act of violence and that the government of President Pervez Musharraf knows far more than it has admitted.

A police officer who witnessed the assassination said a mysterious crowd stopped Bhutto's car that day, prompting her to emerge through the sunroof.

And a document has surfaced in the Pakistani news media that contradicts the government's version of her death and contains details on the pistol and the suicide bomb used in the assassination.

The witness, Ishtiaq Hussain Shah of the Rawalpindi police, said that as Bhutto's car headed onto Rawalpindi's Liaquat Road after a rally Dec. 27, a crowd suddenly appeared and stopped the motorcade, shouting slogans of Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party and waving party banners.

Bhutto, apparently thinking that she was greeting supporters, emerged through the sunroof of the bulletproof car to wave.

As Shah watched, a man 10 feet from where he was standing raised his arm and shot at the former prime minister.

"I jumped to overpower him," Shah said later. "A mighty explosion took place soon afterward."

Shah suffered multiple injuries and is recuperating in a Rawalpindi military hospital, guarded by agents of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency.

Who organized the crowd is among the mysteries lingering two weeks after the assassination.

"I don't know who they were or from where they came," Shah told the Dawn newspaper. "They just appeared on the road."

The second report, in the Pakistani media, contained detailed information about the pistol and the bomb. It rejected the government's conclusion that Bhutto died when the force of the suicide blast threw her head against her car's sunroof lever. Such an impact couldn't have fractured her skull, the report said.

The government refused to confirm the report's authenticity, but a security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, verified it for a McClatchy reporter.

According to the report, a Chinese Norinco pistol was recovered from the scene, as was an MUV-2 triggering mechanism for the bomb. The same device was used in 15 previous suicide bombings in Pakistan, with the same lot number and factory code.

"It is a clear indicator that the same terrorist group is involved in almost all these incidents," concluded the report, which was quoted at length in the Pakistani daily newspaper The News.

Another mystery is why so revealing a report has been buried. Among its other conclusions is that Bhutto's assassin, after shooting her, detonated his suicide belt. No ambulance was called, and it took 25 minutes to get Bhutto to the hospital two miles from the scene.

There was no security cordon around Bhutto - who escaped a suicide bombing attack Oct. 18, the day she returned to Pakistan from self-imposed exile abroad - as she left a park in Rawalpindi.

The crime scene was cleared immediately and hosed down, destroying vital evidence. Doctors at the hospital where she was taken, who announced the night of the assassination that she had died of bullet wounds to the head and neck, changed their account the next day. There was no autopsy.

Musharraf's government has stuck to its explanation that Bhutto died when she hit her head on the sunroof's lever after the explosion, despite several videos that show a gunman firing, then Bhutto disappearing into her vehicle before the blast.

Officials also turned up what they said was a transcript of a telephone conversation between the supposed masterminds - militant Islamists allied with the Taliban - in which they congratulatd each other the day after the assassination.

Scotland Yard detectives, whom Musharraf called in under pressure from home and abroad, have been told that they are to investigate only the cause of death, not the killer's identity.

To many in Pakistan, it all raises questions about whether the government was complicit in the assassination. To others, it points at the very least to a concerted attempt to hide the extent of a security failure.

Bhutto's private security arrangements were questionable. Armored cars are not equipped with sunroofs, but Bhutto's was modified in Karachi against safety advice, according to a security company in that city.

"Both the state and the internal security of the Pakistan People's Party failed miserably," said Masood Sharif Khattak, who was the head of the Intelligence Bureau, Pakistan's top civilian intelligence agency, while Bhutto was prime minister and now is retired. "But state responsibility [for her security] stands first and foremost."

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