IHT : Shaken Bhutto says Islamists were behind Karachi blasts

Friday, October 19, 2007

Shaken Bhutto says Islamists were behind Karachi blasts

By Carlotta Gall and Salman Masood | October 19, 2007

KARACHI, Pakistan: A pale and shaken Benazir Bhutto vowed Friday not to be deterred by the bomb blasts that wrecked her triumphant homecoming and killed more than a hundred of her supporters, and she blamed extremist militants, who she said wanted to take over the country.

"They are saying peace-loving people are not safe to gather," she said at a conference with hundreds of foreign and local journalists in the garden of her home in Clifton, an upscale neighborhood of this southern Pakistani port city. "A minority wants to hijack the destiny of this great nation. And we will not be intimidated by this minority."

Government officials said 134 people were killed in the two blasts, which they said were caused by a single suicide bomber on foot, who first detonated a grenade and then blew himself up, scattering a lethal load of screws, pellets and shrapnel into the dense crowd around Bhutto's armored truck. About 450 people were wounded, said the home secretary, Ghulam Muhammad Mohtarem.

The target was Bhutto and one of the extremist groups in Pakistan was behind it, he said.

"We have no doubt it was a suicide attack," said Mohtarem, a retired brigadier, flanked by the Karachi police chief and other high-ranking police officials. "It can't be definitively said which group was involved, but it is one of the extremist groups."

Baitullah Mehsud, a pro-Taliban militant commander from Pakistan's tribal areas, who has threatened to send bombers after Bhutto, denied that he was involved in the Karachi bombings Friday, Reuters reported.

Bhutto was careful not to blame the government directly for the bomb blasts - she said she had spoken to the president, General Pervez Musharraf, during the day - but she said she had pointed the finger at certain individuals in the government who were sympathetic to terrorists and were abusing their power to advance militant causes.

She said she had received warnings from a "brotherly country" of several different suicide squads plotting attacks on her, one by a Taliban group, one by Al Qaeda and one by a group in Karachi, and had even been supplied telephone numbers the plotters were using. The information had been passed to the government, she said.

"I would hope with so much information in their hands the government would have been able to apprehend them, but I understand the difficulties," she said.

Yet she again accused certain people in the government for involvement in terrorism or at least for showing sympathy for the terrorist cause. She said she had named "three individuals and more" in the government in a letter to Musharraf two days before her return to Pakistan.

"I am not accusing the government, but I am accusing certain individuals who abuse their positions, who abuse their powers," she said. "I know in my heart who my enemies are," she said.

Bhutto said the suicide bombing killed 50 Pakistan Peoples Party security guards who formed a human chain around her truck. "They stood their ground and they stood all around the truck, and they refused to let the suicide bomber - the second suicide bomber - get near the truck," she said. They are the "flower of the nation," she added.

She said the attack represented the larger aims of Islamist terrorism. "The attack was not on me, the attack was on what I represent, it was an attack on democracy, by those who are against the unity and integrity of Pakistan," she said.

Aides close to Bhutto have said that one of the individuals named was Ijaz Shah, the director general of the intelligence bureau and a close associate of Musharraf. Shah hung up his phone when asked about the allegations.

Musharraf telephoned Bhutto on Friday and expressed his "shock and profound grief" over the incident and said he prayed for her safety and security, The Associated Press of Pakistan, a state-run agency, reported.

"The president expressed his firm resolve that all possible steps would be taken and a thorough investigation would be carried out to bring the perpetrators to justice," the agency reported. He ordered law enforcement authorities to track down the mastermind of the bombings within 48 hours and offered U.S.-trained special services commandos to Bhutto for her protection.

Giving details of the attack, Mohtarem said there were two explosions.

"The first explosion was caused by a Russian hand grenade meant to breach the security cordon," he said. "It is difficult to say if the suicide bomber himself threw it or any of his partners. As soon as it destabilized the security cordon, the suicide bomber rushed toward Benazir Bhutto's truck and exploded himself."

The home secretary said that about 15 kilograms, or about 33 pounds, of explosives had been used and that a police van between Bhutto's truck and the suicide bomber bore the brunt of the explosion. The officials said no crater had been found on the road to suggest a roadside bomb.

Azhar Ali Farooqi, the Karachi police chief, said eight police vans had formed a security cordon around Bhutto's truck. Six police officers died in the attack and 20 were wounded, he said.

Farooqi said one suicide vest filled with explosives and thousands of ball bearings was the equivalent of 2,000 bullets. One of his police officers died from a single pellet in the chest, and another died from two pellets that hit him in the back.

The city was almost deserted Friday morning with almost all shopping malls and business centers closed for fear of violence and little traffic on the roads. A crowd had gathered at the scene of the blasts and people offered prayers on the grass in the central divide in the road. A blood-stained Peoples Party flag hung in a small tree. A heavy smell of dead bodies hung in the air, and blood stains and shrapnel marks still marked the curb.

Muhammad Hanif, 40, a jeweler and Peoples Party supporter, who was wounded in the blast, had returned to the scene. "There was a white car parked by the side of the road," he said. "It was stationary and a little girl was sitting on the roof waving a flag."

Both explosions occurred near the white car and it ended up in flames along with the police van, he said. The girl was killed in the first blast, he said. "I tried to move to the side," he added. "People were falling down and asking for help. I wanted to see if Benazir was O.K. and if people need help.

"Then the second explosion came. It was more powerful."

Across the city at a morgue run by the private Edhi Foundation, distraught relatives milled around nervously to inquire about the dead and missing. Bodies wrapped in white shrouds were being brought from hospitals in the city to be kept in the morgue. Desperate relatives stood somberly, looking at the bodies stained with blood.

Ali Muhammad, 45, was standing with reddened eyes and a haggard look on his face near the information room. He said his 18-year-old nephew had been missing since the previous night.

"We searched in every hospital," after the family heard the news of the blasts after midnight, he said. "We inquired from every police station. It's only just now that we have located him here. The body is all blood."

Pervez Abro, a morgue worker, said that as of noon Friday, 45 bodies, had been identified and collected by the relatives.

"We received more than 80 bodies," he said.