RAWALPINDI, Pakistan – Pakistan opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated Thursday in a suicide bombing that also killed at least 20 others at a campaign rally.
The death of the charismatic former prime minister threw the campaign for the Jan. 8 election into chaos and created fears of mass protests and an eruption of violence across the volatile south Asian nation, which has nuclear weapons and a support base for Muslim extremists.
Pakistani troops were put on “red alert” across the country as President Pervez Musharraf blamed terrorists for Bhutto’s death and said he would redouble his efforts to fight them.
“I want to express my resolve and seek the cooperation from the entire nation and we will not rest until we eliminate these terrorists and root them out,” he said in a nationally televised speech. He announced three days of mourning for her across the country.
In the United States, President Bush demanded that those responsible be brought to justice, calling them “murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan’s democracy.”
Bhutto’s supporters erupted in anger and grief after her death, attacking police and burning tires and election campaign posters in several cities. At the hospital where she died, some smashed glass and wailed, chanting slogans against Musharraf.
“At 6:16 p.m. she expired,” said Wasif Ali Khan, a member of Bhutto’s party who was at Rawalpindi General Hospital where she was taken after the attack.
“She has been martyred,” added party official Rehman Malik. Bhutto was 54.
A party security adviser said Bhutto was shot in the neck and chest as she got into her vehicle, then the gunman blew himself up. No group has claimed responsibility.
An Associated Press reporter at the scene of the bombing could see body parts and flesh scattered at the back gate of the park where Bhutto had spoken. He counted about 20 bodies, including police, and could see many other wounded people.
The road outside was stained with blood. People screamed for ambulances. Others gave water to the wounded lying in the street.
The clothing of some of the victims was shredded and people put party flags over their bodies.
Security had been tight, with hundreds of riot police manning security checkpoints with metal detectors around what was Bhutto’s first campaign rally since returning from exile two months ago.
Bhutto had planned an earlier rally in the city, but Musharraf forced her to cancel it, citing security fears. In October, suicide bombers struck a parade celebrating Bhutto’s return, killing more than 140 people in the southern city of Karachi.
Musharraf mulling elections
Parties across the country were stepping up campaigning for the Jan. 8 elections after a Muslim holiday late last week and a holiday on Tuesday for the birthday of Pakistan’s founder and revered first leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
Musharraf convened an emergency meeting with his senior staff where they were expected to discuss whether to postpone the elections, an official at the Interior Ministry said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
Western allies had hoped the elections will restore stability in a nuclear-armed country vital to their battle against Islamist militancy. The three-way race had pitted Bhutto against the party of another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and a party that backs Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup.
Sharif and Bhutto had talked of an alliance, and Sharif on Thursday spoke to Bhutto supporters outside the hospital, saying: “Benazir Bhutto was also my sister, and I will be with you to take the revenge for her death. Don’t feel alone. I am with you. We will take the revenge on the rulers.”
The elections are for provincial parliaments and for a National Assembly from which a prime minister and a government will be drawn. It was not clear if they would still be held on schedule.
In recent weeks, suicide bombers have repeatedly targeted security forces in Rawalpindi, a city near the capital where Musharraf stays and the Pakistan army has its headquarters.
Before the rally, scheduled for Thursday afternoon, Bhutto had met with visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the end of his two-day visit here.
“We too believe that it is essential for both of our countries, and indeed the larger Muslim world, to work to protect the interest of Islamic civilization by eliminating extremism and terrorism,” she said after their meeting.
U.S. heavily invested in Pakistan
Bhutto’s return to the country after years in exile and the ability of her party to contest free and fair elections had been a cornerstone of Bush’s policy in Pakistan, where U.S. officials had watched Musharraf’s growing authoritarianism with increasing unease.
Those concerns were compounded by the rising threat from al-Qaida and Taliban extremists, particularly in Pakistan’s largely ungoverned tribal areas bordering Afghanistan despite the fact that Washington had pumped nearly $10 billion in aid into the country since Musharraf became an indispensible counter-terrorism ally after Sept. 11, 2001
Irritated by the situation, Congress last week imposed new restrictions on U.S. assistance to Pakistan, including tying $50 million in military aid to State Department assurances that the country is making “concerted efforts” to prevent terrorists from operating inside its borders.
Under the law, which provides a total of $300 million in aid to Pakistan and was signed by President Bush on Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also must guarantee Pakistan is implementing democratic reforms, including releasing political prisoners and restoring an independent judiciary.
The law also prevents any of the funds can be used for cash transfer assistance to Pakistan, but that stipulation had already been adopted by the administration.
Despite the congressional move, Richard Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs who had been instrumental in engineering the Bhutto-Musharraf reconciliation, said he had little doubt that the administration would get the money.
Bush, in his comments Thursday, expressed his deepest condolences to Bhutto’s family and to the families of others slain in the attack and to all the people of Pakistan.
“We stand with the people of Pakistan in their struggle against the forces of terror and extremism. We urge them to honor Benazir Bhutto’s memory by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life,” he said.
Family targeted over the years
Bhutto’s family is no stranger to violence.
Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was Pakistan’s first popularly elected prime mister. He was executed in 1979 after being deposed in a military coup.
Bhutto became the first female prime minister in the Muslim world when she was elected in 1988 at the age of 35. She was deposed in 1990, re-elected in 1993, and ousted again in 1996 amid charges of corruption and mismanagement.
She said the charges were politically motivated but in 1999 chose to stay in exile rather than face them.
Both of her brothers died in mysterious circumstances and she had said al-Qaida assassins tried to kill her several times in the 1990s.
Intelligence reports have said al-Qaida, the Taliban and Pakistani jihadi groups have sent suicide bombers after her.
In an interview on Oct. 22 with NBC’s TODAY show, Bhutto said returning to Pakistan and politics was worth the risk to her life. “It was no secret to me that I could be attacked,” she said. “I chose to return and put my life on the line to defend a principle I believe in.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.