Pakistan blasts kill 133 as Bhutto returns

A suspected suicide bomber killed 133 people on Friday in an attack on former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, as she was driven through Karachi to greet supporters on her return from eight years in exile.

Bhutto was unhurt in one of the deadliest attacks in her country’s history. She was quickly escorted away from the truck that had been carrying her from the airport through streets crowded with hundreds of thousands of well-wishers.

“Ms Bhutto is safe and she has been taken to her residence,” said Karachi police chief Azhar Farooqui after two explosions in quick succession rocked Bhutto’s motorcade.

There was no claim of responsibility. Militants linked to al-Qaeda, angered by Bhutto’s support for the United States war on terrorism, had this week threatened to assassinate her.

Interior Ministry Secretary Syed Kamal Shah said 133 people had been killed and 290 wounded.

“The initial investigations suggest it was a suicide bombing,” he said.

Bhutto was travelling in a platform-mounted truck.
Police in vehicles escorting her, reporters and her supporters were among the casualties.

“The target was the truck,” Farooqui told Reuters.

Reuters photographer Athar Hussain was slightly hurt. Hussain, on a truck behind Bhutto’s vehicle, said “a ball of fire” burst into the air. He then rushed towards the scene.

“There was another blast and it was more powerful, then I knew it was a bomb attack.”

He saw a television cameraman killed in front of him: “Bodies were scattered all over and wounded were crying for help.”

Rehman Malik, a Bhutto aide with her on the truck, said the blasts went off while she was resting inside the vehicle.

The attack took place shortly after midnight, more than 10 hours after Bhutto had arrived from Dubai. A city-centre rally she was due to address was cancelled.

About 20 000 security personnel had been deployed to protect Bhutto but the provincial governor said in view of the “real threats”, authorities had urged her party to wind up the procession faster.

“Unfortunately, the terrorists got their opportunity,” governor Ishrat-ul-Ibad told Dawn Television.

Dressed in a green tunic, her head covered with a white scarf—green and white are Pakistan’s national colours—Bhutto had for hours stood in the open on top of the truck, ignoring police advice to stay behind bullet proof glass, as it edged through crowds waving party flags.

Loved ones

Bhutto appeared to have had forebodings of an attempt on her life.

“They might try to assassinate me. I have prepared my family and my loved ones for any possibility,” she told the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.

President Pervez Musharraf said in a statement the attack was “a conspiracy against democracy”.

The United States and other allies condemned the attack.

“There is no political cause that can justify the murder of innocent people,” said US State Department spokesperson Tom Casey.

A White House National Security Council spokesperson said: “Extremists will not be allowed to stop Pakistanis from selecting their representatives through an open and democratic process.”

The European Union urged authorities to find those responsible. “Such acts greatly endanger the electoral process,” it said, referring to general elections due by mid-January.

In Dubai, Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari told ARYONE World Television: “I blame government for these blasts. It is the work of the intelligence agencies.”

At least three militant groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban were plotting suicide attacks, according to a provincial official.

Bhutto (54) had come back from self-imposed exile to lead her Pakistan People’s Party in the general election meant to return the country to civilian rule.

For years Bhutto had vowed to come back to end military dictatorship, yet she returned as a potential ally for Musharraf, the army chief who took power in a 1999 coup.

The United States has quietly encouraged their alliance to keep nuclear-armed Pakistan pro-Western and committed to fighting al-Qaeda and supporting Nato’s efforts to stabilise Afghanistan.

Bhutto’s family history has been steeped in violence.

Her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s first popularly elected prime minister, was overthrown and hanged, while her two brothers were killed in mysterious circumstances, one gunned down in Karachi, the other found dead in his French Riviera flat. - Reuters

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