Toronto Star : Bhutto's homecoming shattered

Friday, October 19, 2007

Bhutto's homecoming shattered

Sonya Fatah | SPECIAL TO THE STAR | October 19, 2007

KARACHI, Pakistan–Two massive bomb blasts put an end to former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's joyous welcome home party early this morning, exploding in front of her cavalcade, leaving at least 126 dead and more than 200 injured.

The suspected suicide bombings went off about 10 hours after Bhutto's entourage began snaking its way through massive crowds that turned up for her return to Pakistan after eight years of self-imposed exile.

Blood and shreds of flesh replaced a scene of merriment only moments earlier when radios blasted songs and tributes to the returning Pakistan People's Party leader.

"It was like walking through an abattoir, there was flesh and blood on the floor," an Agence France-Presse photographer following the parade said at the scene. "There was a smell of burning, I don't know if it was burning flesh or whatever."

Hundreds of thousands had travelled from across Pakistan to be in Karachi in time to receive Bhutto. Many spent the night sleeping in cars, gardens and on sidewalks near the airport. Boom boxes blared party songs and kept up the momentum in the hours before Bhutto's plane arrived.

Party leaders had announced an 18-hour procession that would take Bhutto from her plane to the door of her large, fortress-style home in the southern edge of the city.

But shortly after midnight, hours into the march and with no sign of crowds thinning, bombs exploded near the truck Bhutto had been riding in, transforming the exuberance and energy into chaos and despair.

Bhutto, dressed in the green of the Pakistani flag and sporting a PPP baseball cap, had stepped off the top deck of the truck and into a downstairs enclosed compartment to get some rest, minutes before the explosions. Rushed into a nearby car, Bhutto was quickly taken home and was reported to be safe and unharmed.

Many of the casualties were police officers and senior party members. Some 20,000 security personnel had been deployed to provide protection to the cavalcade. Authorities had urged Bhutto to use a helicopter to reduce the risk of attack.

"They might try to assassinate me. I have prepared my family and my loved ones for any possibility," Bhutto told the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat newspaper before departing for Karachi.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said in a statement the attack represented "a conspiracy against democracy."

It also marked the first in a series of anticipated roadblocks to the former prime minister's return to contest national elections meant to return the country to civilian rule.

For years, 54-year-old Bhutto had vowed to return to Pakistan to end military dictatorship, yet she came back as a potential ally for Gen. Musharraf, the army chief who took power in a 1999 coup.

Speculation is rife that the attack could be an inside job.

Speaking from Dubai, Bhutto's husband Asif Ali Zardari stepped in quickly to implicate Pakistan's notorious intelligence agencies.

"We blame one intelligence agency and we demand action against it ... it is not done by militants," he told a Pakistani television channel.

Bhutto was warned of threats to her safety well before her arrival in Pakistan.

Taliban loyalists had declared her a legitimate target for collaborating with Musharraf's pro-Western government. And although the opposition Muttahida Qaumi Movement has welcomed her return, she has many political enemies from her years in power.

The blasts could make things difficult for Musharraf, although some have suggested they are a response to the unexpectedly large number of people who came out to support Bhutto, and therefore, democracy.

"If the president doesn't take action himself, it's going to look very bad for him," said a senior PPP official, who also suggested the latest events may push in emergency rule or even martial law.

Members of Musharraf's ruling party have hinted that the elections are likely to be bloody.

Police were quick to identify a suicide bomber by name within an hour of the incident but later retracted that statement. Analysts say it's unlikely Islamists are behind the attack.

"It's too, too obvious too simplistic that the terrorists are doing it," said a military analyst.

Whether yesterday's events diminish Bhutto's street power is hard to tell, just yet.

Bhutto became leader of the Pakistan People's Party more than two decades ago after the military's 1979 execution of its founder, her father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a populist prime minister still exalted by many Pakistanis as the finest leader in the country's 60-year history.

Bhutto, who has been successful in maintaining most of her late father's popularity, is seen by many as a woman of substance and by others as a symbol of corruption.

Yesterday, thousands of excited supporters carried and wrapped an endless red, black and green flag – PPP's signature – around the mausoleum of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. They had come from all over Pakistan to welcome Bhutto home. They sang songs of freedom and slogans of victory for the Bhutto family.

Earlier, Bhutto too had looked resplendent and emotional, shedding tears of joy and raising her hands to the skies when she emerged from the plane. On the truck she spoke about democracy and liberation.

Even before today's attack, Bhutto's family history has been steeped in violence. Her father was overthrown and hanged, while her two brothers were killed in mysterious circumstances.

Sonya Fatah is a freelance journalist based in South Asia