Pakistan pointed a finger on Friday at al-Qaeda for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, as her body was taken to her ancestral home for burial and anger at her death erupted into deadly unrest.
The scale of the violence left the nuclear-armed Muslim nation shell-shocked, triggering alarm around the world and throwing scheduled January 8 elections into disarray.
Interior Ministry spokesperson Brigadier Javed Cheema said Bhutto had been on an al-Qaeda hit-list and that it was likely the Islamic extremist network played a role in the suicide attack that killed her on Thursday.
”Benazir has been on the hit-list of al-Qaeda,” he said. ”Now there is every possibility that al-Qaeda is behind this tragic attack to undermine the security of Pakistan.”
Authorities struggled to contain the seething anger, ordering paramilitary forces in Karachi, a Bhutto stronghold, to shoot rioters on sight and sending troops into several cities across the south.
”Troops will remain present in these cities and assist local authorities in case of any eventuality,” chief army spokesperson Waheed Arshad said.
At least 11 people have been killed in violence since Bhutto’s death, and there have been angry demonstrations in several cities, with mobs ransacking offices and torching buildings and vehicles.
In Rawalpindi, the scene of Thursday’s killing, police fired tear gas as a crowd tried to march toward the office of a former railways minister and close Musharraf ally.
In Peshawar in the north-west, a mob of about 1Ã‚Â 500 people — many chanting ”Bhutto is alive!” — ransacked and set alight the office of a pro-government party and stoned a cinema.
The two-time former premier was to be buried next to her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, also a prime minister and who was executed by the military in 1979 after being ousted from power, a party spokesperson said.
Bhutto’s husband and three children accompanied the coffin as it arrived by helicopter in nearby Naudero ahead of the ceremony at the family tomb in the village of Garhi Khuda Bakhsh.
As Pakistan began three days of mourning, with schools and businesses shut down, the ARY television network reported al-Qaeda had claimed responsibility for the gun and suicide bomb attack that killed Bhutto and 20 others.
Bhutto (54) was leaving a rally where she had been campaigning for the vote when a suicide bomber shot her in the neck before blowing himself up.
United States President George Bush described the killing as a ”cowardly act” and telephoned Musharraf — a crucial ally in the US-led ”war on terror” against Islamic extremism — to urge Pakistan to stay on the path of democracy.
Stunned world leaders appealed for calm and warned that extremists must not be allowed to destabilise the vote.
However, those elections now appear increasingly in doubt, with Pakistan’s other major opposition figure, Nawaz Sharif, pulling his party out and senior government officials considering whether to announce a delay.
”For now, the elections stand as they were announced. We’ll take the next step after consulting political parties,” interim Prime Minister Mohammedmian Soomro said.
Official sources said the ultimate decision would come from Musharraf, who was expected to hold a top-level meeting on Friday with political aides.
Sharif warned that going ahead with the polls would ”destroy the country” and reiterated his demand that Musharraf step down.
”This is the number-one demand of the nation today,” he told reporters.
”They are not going to be credible,” he said of the vote. ”We believe that Musharraf has no intention of holding free and fair elections and yesterday [Thursday] was proof of that.”
World stock markets slipped amid concerns over global stability, and crude oil futures climbed back towards the $100 per-barrel mark.
Bhutto was an outspoken critic of al-Qaeda-linked Islamic extremists blamed for scores of bombings in Pakistan and had received death threats.
She had also accused elements from the intelligence services of involvement in a suicide attack at an October 18 rally welcoming her home from exile. She narrowly escaped, but the attack killed 139 people.
Bhutto became the first elected female leader of a Muslim country in 1988. She was deposed in 1990 amid corruption allegations, but was premier a second time from 1993 to 1996.
Educated at Oxford and Harvard, her return here in October brought hopes of power-sharing with Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999.
The hopes were quickly shattered however, first by the Karachi bombing and then when Musharraf imposed emergency rule on November 3, lifting it only six weeks later. — AFP