AFP : Pakistan's ex-premier Bhutto defiant after homecoming blasts kill 133

Friday, October 19, 2007

Pakistan's ex-premier Bhutto defiant after homecoming blasts kill 133

October 19, 2007

KARACHI (AFP) — Benazir Bhutto stood defiant Friday after a suicide bomb targeting the former Pakistani prime minister's homecoming parade killed 133 people and tipped the troubled country toward crisis.

Bhutto was unhurt, narrowly escaping with her life after climbing down into the interior of her vehicle just moments before the bomb and a grenade seconds earlier ripped through the police escort.

The streets of Karachi, packed with hundreds of thousands of her supporters, became a scene of bloody carnage.

It was the worst suicide attack in Pakistan's history, casting an immediate shadow over hopes that her return with the approval of military ruler Pervez Musharraf might bring an end to months of political turmoil.

Blood and body parts were scattered widely across the scene and doctors at hospitals in Pakistan's biggest city struggled to keep pace after the attack, which occurred late on Thursday.

Bhutto's party vowed she would stay in Pakistan to fight general elections in January, seen as a key step to returning the nuclear-armed nation of some 160 million people to civilian rule.

"She will stay in Pakistan, she will not leave, she is determined," Safdar Abbasi, a senator for Bhutto's Pakistan People's party, told AFP at Bhutto's residence, Bilawal House, in Karachi.

Angry Bhutto supporters burned tyres and hurled stones at police in several parts of the city on Friday, witnesses said.

The attack came hours after Bhutto had flown in from Dubai, sobbing as she set foot on Pakistani soil for the first time since 1999, having shrugged off warnings that Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants would try to kill her.

"It was like walking through an abattoir," an AFP photographer who had been following the parade said. "Some people were lying around intact, others were completely dismembered."

Hospital officials said nearly 400 people were injured.

"It was an act of terrorism targeting Benazir Bhutto and aimed at sabotaging the democratic process," Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao told AFP.

Sherpao did not say who might be responsible, while Bhutto's husband Asif Ali Zardari alleged a Pakistani intelligence agency was behind the attack.

The explosion damaged the specially fortified campaign bus decked out with portraits of the ex-prime minister and her father which Bhutto had been driven on through the crowds for more than eight hours.

Interior ministry spokesman Javed Cheema told AFP that a grenade was thrown into the crowd seconds before the suicide attacker blew himself up, confirming an earlier police account.

"The impact was so high because the bomber used things like pellets and nails, which always have a splintering effect," Cheema added.

Police said the bomber's severed head was found at the scene and would be DNA-tested.

Bhutto returned from self-imposed exile after Musharraf -- the head of the military as well as president -- dropped corruption charges against her in the hope her popularity could shore up his grip on power.

She had mostly worked out a power-sharing deal with him but his re-election as president earlier this month is being challenged in the courts, as is the amnesty deal.

Musharraf condemned the attack in the "strongest possible terms." He said those responsible would get "exemplary punishment" and appealed for calm.

Karachi policeman Falak Ahmad told AFP said the blasts were only around 15 feet (five metres) from her truck. "Minutes before, she had gone inside," he said.

Dazed Bhutto supporters stumbled along the road, searching for relatives or helping bloodied survivors into vans to be rushed to hospital.

She had earlier insisted she was unconcerned about threats in revenge for her vow to crack down on Muslim extremists.

"We are still fighting a dictatorship," Bhutto -- the first woman ever to lead an Islamic nation -- said on arrival. "We want to isolate extremists and build a better Pakistan."

Her brother was shot dead in Karachi in 1996 and her father was hanged in 1979 by military dictator Zia-ul-Haq.

The United States, which sees Pakistan as a key ally in its "war on terror," led global outrage.

"The United States condemns the violent attack in Pakistan and mourns the loss of innocent life there," White House national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

Australia said the attack bore the hallmarks of Al-Qaeda, while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon denounced the bombing.