Boston Globe : At least 113 die in Bhutto homecoming

Friday, October 19, 2007

At least 113 die in Bhutto homecoming

Pakistan's former leader escapes bombs

By Carlotta Gall and Salman Masood, New York Times News Service | October 19, 2007

KARACHI, Pakistan - Two bombs exploded yesterday just seconds apart and feet from a truck carrying the returning opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, narrowly missing her but killing scores of people and bloodying a triumphal homecoming after eight years in exile.

According to the Associated Press, officials at six hospitals reported 126 dead and 248 wounded, while police chief Azhar Farooqi put the death toll at 113, including 20 police, with 300 people wounded.

There were no claims of responsibility for the attack.

Bhutto, who had spent eight hours on the roof of the truck waving to supporters, had climbed inside the armored vehicle 10 minutes before the blasts occurred, just before midnight, said Rehman Malik, Bhutto's security adviser and close associate.

She was immediately taken to Bilawal House, her home in Kara chi, ending her parade through the city to the tomb of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.

Bhutto's arrival at 2 p.m. had drawn huge crowds, perhaps 200,000 or more, who danced on the tops of buses and surged forward as she inched her way for hours through her home city.

The strong outpouring provided an emotional homecoming for Bhutto and political vindication of sorts for a woman twice turned out of office as prime minister, after being accused of corruption and mismanagement.

It also demonstrated that Bhutto remained a decisive political force in Pakistan, even after her long absence, and marked what supporters and opponents alike agreed was a new political chapter for the nation.

The bomb attack showed it to be a treacherous one as well.

The explosions, caught on camera, gave off brilliant white flashes, and set two cars ablaze. Survivors stumbled over bodies and debris in a haze of smoke. It was not immediately clear if the explosions were caused by suicide bombers.

Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party had fielded 2,000 of its own workers to form rings around their returning leader, guarding her with their numbers and preventing any vehicles or people from approaching.

Before the explosions sundered the celebration, thousands of supporters and workers from her party had lined Bhutto's route, waving banners and surging forward for a glimpse of the opposition leader as she made her way through the streets. Many danced on bus tops and in the road. Bhutto waved as music pumped out from loudspeakers.

The crowd was overwhelmingly working class. Many young men said they were unemployed, but had traveled hundreds of miles, paying their own way, and camping out overnight on the road to the airport to await her arrival.

In the crowd, Raja Munir Ahmed, 42, a real estate agent, said he had come from Mirpur in a Pakistani-administered part of Kashmir. "It was a journey of 1,500 kilometers and all along we saw buses and cars carrying Peoples Party flags," he said. "People want change. People want to get rid of inflation and unemployment."

Then he shouted, "Long live Bhutto!" and disappeared into the crowd.

Such supporters were among the majority of those killed and wounded. But about 20 were also police and law enforcement officials, said Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao. Eight police vans were flanking the truck at the time and the explosions occurred on the left and right sides of the road, he said.

He denied it was a security lapse, saying that the crowds and length of the route made it extremely difficult to ensure security.

Earlier, Bhutto was clearly emotional as she took her first steps on Pakistani soil, having lived the last eight years in self-imposed exile in London and Dubai. She left Pakistan to escape corruption charges she contends were politically motivated.

She climbed down a metal staircase to reach the tarmac, and paused on the bottom step and prayed as friends held a Koran aloft. As an aide embraced her, Bhutto wiped tears. "The most important step - to be back on Pakistani soil," she said, as cameramen swarmed around her.

On the plane from Dubai, supporters broke into repeated cheers and chanting of "Prime Minister Benazir," standing in the aisles and delaying the flight for nearly one hour. Bhutto walked through the cabin to greet supporters and press.

"Very excited, very happy, very proud, a tremendous sense of responsibility as there are so many people at the airport," she said when asked how she felt.

She spoke strongly against terrorism and the need to save Pakistan from extremism through democracy. "The time has come for democracy," she said. "If we want to save Pakistan, we have to have democracy."

She has been outspoken against militants and Al Qaeda and repeated the same comments as she flew in. "The terrorists are trying to take over my country and we have to stop them," she said.

Bhutto had made clear repeatedly that she was returning to Pakistan to lead her party in the parliamentary elections scheduled for January. If she can win a change in the law, she will run for prime minister for a third time, something now legally barred.

"The people are telling me the bread and butter issues are the most important," she said. "They are saying that poverty has increased, the gulf between the rich and poor has increased. They say that people want change. They want a government that listens to them, will respect them, and will address the people's issues."

The explosions seem certain to add fresh venom to relations between the Pakistan Peoples Party and the government.

President Pervez Musharraf, according to a statement released by state media, condemned the attack "in the strongest possible words," calling it "a conspiracy against democracy."

The Bush administration, which has backed Musharraf, noted his condemnation of the attack, as the State Department issued a statement saying, "Those responsible seek only to foster fear and limit freedom."

Bhutto earlier said in the interview atop the truck that she was concerned about her security and that she had told Musharraf that she suspected people in his administration and the security forces of supporting the militants and terrorism.

"This is not the same Pakistan it was in 1996 when my government was overthrown," she said. "The militants have risen in power. But I know who these people are, I know the forces behind them, and I have written to General Musharraf about this. And I've told him there are certain people I suspect in the administration and security.

"Unless there is some thought given to that, this is what emboldens the militants," she said. "They've got some covert support from sympathizers within the system."