Globe And Mail : Assassins blacken Bhutto's return

Friday, October 19, 2007

Assassins blacken Bhutto's return


Two bombs narrowly miss former prime minister's motorcade, leaving scores dead in streets once filled with her supporters

SAEED SHAH | Special to The Globe and Mail | October 19, 2007

KARACHI -- Benazir Bhutto's triumphal return from exile was shattered yesterday as two bombs exploded near her motorcade, killing more than 120 and wounding at least 200 in a near-successful attempt to assassinate the former prime minister.

A dazed-looking Ms. Bhutto was immediately driven off in a large jeep that had been part of her procession. "Ms. Bhutto is safe and she has been taken to her residence," said Azhar Farooqui, a senior police officer in Karachi.

The blasts, one of the deadliest bomb attacks in Pakistan's history, appeared to come from cars just metres from her vehicle, a specially built bulletproof truck. Some eye witnesses at the scene said the blasts were followed by gun fire. Three impacts were clearly visible on the glass security screen atop the truck. Witnesses said they were bullet marks.

Safraz Noor, who was part of the crowd, said: "It was planned, first the blasts, then they target Benazir Bhutto with gunfire."

Police said the attack was likely a suicide bombing.

"Evidence available at the scene is suggesting it was a suicide bombing and ... exploded near police vehicles, destroying the two police vans escorting Benazir Bhutto's truck," police officer Raja Umer Khitab said. He said several policemen died.

Ms. Bhutto was travelling from Karachi airport after arriving in Pakistan at the end of eight years in exile. At the time of the attack, she was inside the vehicle, resting. Shortly before, she had been sitting on its roof, waving to the huge crowds celebrating her arrival.

Christina Lamb, Ms. Bhutto's biographer, told Sky News she had been talking with Ms. Bhutto on the truck and that the former prime minister "knew she was a target ... she was worried that the lights were going off, the street lights, and that snipers could be on the tops of buildings and bridges."

"Luckily the bus had a downstairs enclosed compartment for her to go and rest in," Ms. Lamb said, "and she just happened to be there when it went off, so she wasn't on top in the open like rest of us, so that just saved her."

A police chief at the scene said that fortifications on Ms. Bhutto's truck "saved her life."

Some 20,000 security personnel had been deployed to provide protection for Ms. Bhutto.

Militants linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban had vowed to attack Ms. Bhutto, who has closely allied herself with the United States and its war on terrorism. Ms. Bhutto recently caused a furor in Pakistan and antagonized militants by saying that she would allow U.S. forces based in Afghanistan to hunt Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil. But Ms. Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, speaking from Dubai, told ARY One World Television: "I blame government for these blasts. It is the work of the intelligence agencies."

Ms. Bhutto earlier said in an interview atop the truck with The New York Times that she was concerned about her security and that she had told Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that she suspected people in his administration and the security forces of supporting 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. They've got some covert support from sympathizers within the system."

The blasts happened just a few kilometres from Karachi airport, on a main thoroughfare through the city. At the scene blood was splattered across the road and pieces of flesh and body parts were scattered over the area. Hats, shoes and other personal items were lying in pools of blood.

Raja Mubashir Ijaz, another witness and party worker, said: "No Muslim can do this. People were happy, celebrating. Everything was peaceful. I don't know what is happening to Pakistan."

Earlier in the day, Karachi had been engulfed in scenes of jubilation, as Ms. Bhutto's supporters turned out in the hundreds of thousands to celebrate her return. A virtual street party was in progress all the way from the airport to the mausoleum of the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, about 19 kilometres away, where Ms. Bhutto was to have addressed the crowds. The attack happened about 10 hours after she started her road journey, while her motorcade was crawling through a highly excited crowd that spilled on to the road.

Gen. Musharraf said the attack represented "a conspiracy against democracy."

Washington was also quick to react. The United States has painstakingly coaxed Gen. Musharraf, who seized power in 1999, into holding an open general election, which is scheduled for mid-January.

"Extremists will not be allowed to stop Pakistanis from selecting their representatives through an open and democratic process," Gordon Johndroe, White House National Security Council spokesman, said.

Pakistani authorities had urged Ms. Bhutto to use a helicopter to reduce the risk of attack. But flying would not have had the same political impact. The slow speed of her motorcade, the known route and the chaos created by the crowds, made it an easy target.

"I am not scared. I am thinking of my mission," she had told reporters on the plane to Karachi from Dubai earlier in the day. "This is a movement for democracy because we are under threat from extremists and militants."

Ms. Bhutto had been emotional on her arrival at the Karachi airport. "I counted the hours, the minutes and the seconds just to see this land, sky and grass," she said.

People had travelled from all over Pakistan to see her, a journey of several days for some. They started gathering at dawn and waited for hours in the scorching sun.

Zahid Hussain, author of the recent book Frontline Pakistan, said: "She's been very shrewd. Look at the number of people. Now she can dictate terms with Musharraf. This has shown that the People's Party is still the most powerful political force in the country."