Seattle Times : Bombs shatter Bhutto's homecoming

Friday, October 19, 2007

Bombs shatter Bhutto's homecoming

By Seattle Times news services | October 19, 2007

KARACHI, Pakistan — Two powerful bombs detonated next to a truck carrying former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto late Thursday, just hours after she returned from exile to a triumphal homecoming. More than 120 people were killed and hundreds were wounded in one of Pakistan's worst episodes of political violence.

Bhutto, who arrived in this coastal city Thursday afternoon after eight years away, appeared shaken but unhurt.

The attacks create even more uncertainty in the nuclear-armed nation, which has appeared to be coming apart at the seams in recent months. Islamic extremists have intensified their insurgency in the country's wild border areas, and al-Qaida is regrouping. President Pervez Musharraf is facing the biggest political crisis of his career, as more and more people call for him to step down as army chief.

The Bush administration has seen Bhutto as part of a solution to the country's problems. Musharraf and Bhutto reportedly had negotiated a power-sharing deal that dropped corruption charges against Bhutto and eventually would allow her to seek an unprecedented third term as prime minister.

Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless military coup in 1999, also had agreed to take off his army uniform if elected president. In return, he would get Bhutto's significant political support to shore up the government's authority.

The U.S. sees the unlikely pairing of one-time rivals Musharraf and Bhutto, whose father was hanged by the military men who overthrew him, as the best way to ensure stability in Pakistan and fight the war on terror. Recent statements by Bhutto have been even more pro-American than those of Musharraf, and have angered many in Pakistan.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the blasts, but there are many possible culprits. A Taliban leader in Pakistan had threatened last week to "welcome" Bhutto with suicide bombers.

Security officials said the explosions had been set off within several yards of her vehicle as it inched through the streets, with Bhutto being cheered by thousands of supporters.

Pakistan People's Party officials said 3 million people had shown up to welcome Bhutto. Pakistani news stations estimated the crowd at 1.5 million.

The blasts came as Bhutto's convoy was en route from the airport to a planned public meeting at the tomb of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder.

Body parts were strewn for hundreds of yards around, and men walked away from the scene covered head to toe in blood. Dozens of ambulances, sirens wailing, ferried the injured and the dead to local hospitals. Survivors sat by the side of the road, weeping. The smell of rose petals — revelers had tossed them into the air to welcome Bhutto — mingled with the odors from the carnage.

When Bhutto arrived from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Thursday, she seemed almost oblivious to the risk. Security was supposed to be tight, with 8,000 police officers and 3,500 Bhutto security workers wearing T-shirts saying they would die for her. Her vehicle was armored, and a special green bulletproof screen had been set up on the roof, but Bhutto ignored it.

Instead, for most of her journey, she stood at the front of the platform roof on the converted truck, surrounded by party faithful, and waved at the crowd. Although barricades had been set up late Wednesday near her planned route, people were able to get through them fairly easily and even pushed back a police charge near the airport, flooding inside. No one was searched.

By late Thursday, many security officers seemed tired, witnesses said. "This was at a time when the police escort was pretty exhausted," said Naveed Ahmed, a reporter for Geo TV.

Just before the explosions, Bhutto decided to go down into the truck's cabin to rest.

For hours after the explosions, ambulance workers tried to pick up body parts of victims to bury them according to Islamic law.

"It's against humanity," said Raja Mubasher, a party activist.

Bhutto's family history is etched with tragedy. Her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was Pakistan's prime minister until 1977, when he was ousted by his army chief, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. Two years later, the former prime minister was hanged. Since then, Benazir Bhutto's two brothers have died in mysterious circumstances.

She went into exile in 1999 to avoid corruption charges that she called politically motivated. Early this month, Musharraf quashed the charges under a deal in which Bhutto kept her supporters from pressing for his ouster.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company