Bhutto Attack Probably a Taliban Plot, Ministry Says
By Khalid Qayum and Khaleeq Ahmed
Dec. 28 (Bloomberg) -- A Taliban commander linked to al- Qaeda is suspected of plotting the suicide attack that killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's government said.
Authorities have a taped conversation of the Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in which he congratulates a friend for Bhutto's death, Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema told reporters today. ``Very brave boys'' took part in the assault, Mehsud said, according to a government transcript of the tape.
The 54-year-old opposition leader was standing in the open sunroof of her blast-proof, bullet-proof car during yesterday's attack in Rawalpindi, Cheema said. She seemed to duck into the car, possibly to escape gunshots that preceded the bombing or because she was thrown off balance by the explosion. Bhutto's head hit the sunroof's lever, causing a fatal skull fracture, he said. She wasn't hit by a bullet, nor by any shrapnel, he said.
``We pray and wish that she had not come out of that sunroof to wave to the people,'' Cheema said. ``Police had advised her not to expose herself, that she might be harmed.''
Mehsud has orchestrated most of the suicide attacks in Pakistan, including a blast that Bhutto survived in October, the spokesman said.
The government had provided Bhutto with more security than for any other Pakistani politician, including 24 officers assigned solely to her, the spokesman said, denying Bhutto's repeated allegations that she lacked sufficient protection.
Other political leaders, including former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, are also at risk and must heed the government's security advice, Cheema said in the capital, Islamabad.
Bhutto was buried today, as troops were sent to quell riots across Pakistan. She was interred in the family mausoleum in Garhi Khuda Baksh, in the southern province of Sindh, about 480 kilometers (298 miles) north of the commercial capital, Karachi. Thousands of people were shown on television weeping and struggling to touch the coffin. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, her three children and her sister attended the burial.
As news of Bhutto's assassination spread, protesters poured onto the streets and set fire to cars, banks and government offices in Karachi, Larkana, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and dozens of towns in Sindh province. The government ordered a judicial inquiry into the killing.
Challenges for Musharraf
President Pervez Musharraf's immediate task is to restore order, and maintain his hold on power, amid allegations that the government might have been complicit in Bhutto's death or at least failed to do enough to protect her.
``This is putting Musharraf in a place where he won't want to be,'' said Christine Fair, a South Asia analyst at the RAND Corporation research group in Washington.
With Bhutto campaigning for the Jan. 8 elections, Musharraf was able to claim ``some legitimacy'' for his effort to stabilize his rule by including democratically elected civilians in government, Fair said. Bhutto's death ``will heighten the demand for him to go, both within and without Pakistan.''
Elections will be held as scheduled on Jan. 8, Interim Prime Minister Mohammedmian Soomro said. ``Any decision on a possible postponement'' will be discussed with political parties, he told reporters in Islamabad.
Musharraf allowed Bhutto to return to Pakistan to participate in the elections. She had lived in Dubai and London since 1999 after being charged in Pakistan with taking kickbacks on state contracts. She wasn't convicted on the charges. The Pakistani president appealed for calm yesterday after her death.
Bhutto was laid to rest in the same tomb where her father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was buried two decades ago after being executed. Her brothers, one of whom was killed in France and another in a Karachi shooting, are also buried there.
The stock exchange, central bank and markets closed after Musharraf announced three days of national mourning. The interior minister said the government suspects al-Qaeda was involved in yesterday's suicide bomb attack, although he said he couldn't confirm reports the terrorist network had claimed responsibility.
Pakistan's military deployed troops in Larkana and the southern towns of Shahdadkot and Rohri, army spokesman Waheed Arshad said in a phone interview. As many as 12,000 members of the Pakistan Rangers, a paramilitary force, were positioned across Sindh province, Dawn News reported.
Domestic flights were canceled and train services suspended, GEO television said. At least five people were killed in Karachi as demonstrators exchanged gunfire with police, according to the Edhi Foundation, Pakistan's biggest ambulance service.
Sharif said his opposition party will boycott next month's national elections, and called on Musharraf to quit as the nation's leader.
``Under the present circumstances and under Musharraf, neither is campaigning possible nor is a free election,'' Sharif told reporters in Islamabad yesterday. Police said at least 16 people died and more than 60 were injured in yesterday's attack.
Sharif postponed traveling to Larkana today after Bhutto's husband advised him not to attend the burial because of security concerns, spokesman Siddique-ul-Farooq said by phone.
``This is a definitive moment for Pakistan's future, and the only way I think the country can survive is for the forces of moderation to come together,'' Karl Inderfurth, a professor of international relations at George Washington University in Washington, said today in a telephone interview. ``I believe that President Musharraf will be a very important part of deciding what happens next, but so should the leaders of the political parties, and civil society in Pakistan.''
Condemned by Bush
President George W. Bush asked Pakistanis ``to honor Benazir Bhutto's memory by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life.''
Bush, who condemned the attack as a ``cowardly act by murderous extremists,'' spoke to Musharraf yesterday from his ranch in Texas. The U.S. had backed a partnership between Bhutto and Musharraf, whose nation has been hailed by the administration as an ally in its campaign against terrorism.
The United Nations Security Council met and agreed unanimously on a statement that ``reaffirms that terrorism in all its forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security.''
The U.K. government advised Britons against ``all but essential travel'' to Pakistan until further notice, according to a statement on the Foreign Office Web site. Travelers already in the country ``should remain in their lodgings and not go out until the situation becomes clearer,'' the Foreign Office said.
To contact the reporters on this story: Khalid Qayum in Islamabad at firstname.lastname@example.org ; Khaleeq Ahmed in Islamabad at email@example.com.