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Pakistan on edge after Bhutto assassination

The body of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was taken to her family village for burial on Friday, a day after her assassination plunged the nuclear-armed country into one of the worst crises in its 60-year history.

Her killing after an election rally in the city of Rawalpindi triggered a wave of violence, especially in her native Sindh province, and stoked fears a January 8 election meant to return Pakistan to civilian-led democracy could be put off.

World leaders urged Pakistan not to be deflected from a course towards democracy, as fears of further instability in a region racked by Islamist militancy roiled markets on Friday and triggered a flight to less risky assets such as bonds and gold.

Thousands of mourners thronged Bhutto’s ancestral home as her body arrived in a military aircraft, accompanied by her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and their three children.

People began crying and wailing as Bhutto’s coffin was brought to her family home in an ambulance.

”Show patience. Give us courage to bear this loss,” Zardari urged the mourners as the coffin was carried into the house.

Bhutto (54) had hoped the huge popular following she enjoyed among the Pakistani poor would propel her to power for the third time as prime minister in an election meant to stabilise a country struggling to contain Islamist violence.

But as she left the election rally, where she spoke of threats to her life, she stood up to wave to supporters from the sun-roof of her bullet-proof vehicle. An attacker fired shots at her before blowing himself up, police and witnesses said.

She was pronounced dead in hospital in Rawalpindi, the home of the Pakistan army and the same city where her father, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged in 1979 after being deposed by a military coup.

”It is the act of those who want Pakistan to disintegrate,” said Farzana Raja, a senior official from Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party. ”They have finished the Bhutto family.”

Across Pakistan, a country used to political violence and ruled by the military for more than half of its life, friends and foes alike were stunned by the death of a woman many had once criticised as a feudal leader buoyed by popular support while enjoying the riches of the family dynasty.

”People are very angry. They attacked banks and government offices. There were no police anywhere. Two shops selling weapons were also looted,” said Maula Baksh, a journalist based in Larkana.

Mounting anger

At least 10 people were killed as outraged mobs took to the streets across Pakistan on Friday to protest the slaying of Benazir Bhutto, blocking roads and torching vehicles, officials said.

President Pervez Musharraf appealed for calm as mobs also attacked government buildings in mounting anger over the assassination of Bhutto.

At least four people were killed in southern Sindh province, Bhutto’s political stronghold, another four in the southern metropolis of Karachi and at least two in the eastern border city of Lahore, Interior Ministry spokesperson Javed Cheema said.

”The death toll in the unrest after Bhutto’s death is 10, mostly in Sindh province,” Cheema said, adding dozens of people were also wounded in the violence, which escalated as news of Bhutto’s death spread.

Sporadic gunfire could be heard echoing around the streets of Lahore where shops and vehicles could be seen on fire.

The markets and shops immediately closed down as paramilitary patrols roamed the streets in an attempt to keep a lid on the violence, a local police officer said.

In Karachi police said at least 70 vehicles were burnt by protesters, including 35 trucks filled with wheat. All petrol pumps were immediately closed as knots of grief-stricken protesters blocked many roads.

Former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, Bhutto’s old political rival, said his party would boycott the January election.

He blamed President Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup in 1999 but has since stepped down from the army, for creating instability. ”Free elections are not possible … Musharraf is the root cause of all problems,” he said.

Musharraf imposed a state of emergency in November in what was seen as an attempt to stop the judiciary from vetoing his re-election as president. He lifted emergency rule this month.

The central bank and all schools were to be closed for three days of mourning.

The United States, which relies on Pakistan as an ally against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan, had championed the Oxford- and Harvard-educated Bhutto, seeing in her the best hope of a return to democracy.

”The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan’s democracy,” President George Bush said in a statement.

Bush telephoned Musharraf and urged Pakistanis to honour Bhutto’s memory by continuing with the democratic process.

Analysts said Bhutto’s death, which followed a wave of suicide attacks and the worsening of an Islamist insurgency, could make it impossible to go ahead with the election.

”I think there is a very real possibility that Musharraf will decide that the situation has got out of control and that he needs to impose emergency rule again,” said Farzana Shaikh from the Chatham House analysis group in London.

Musharraf condemned the attack and called for calm.

”We will not sit and rest until we get rid of these terrorists, root them out,” he said. He declared three days of mourning, but made no mention of the election.

Police said 16 people had been killed in the attack.

Bhutto became the first democratically elected female prime minister in the Muslim world 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 she said were politically motivated.

Along with her husband, she is survived by son Bilawal (19) and two daughters, Bakhtawar (17) and Aseefa (14).

Bhutto’s husband said the government should step down.

”We demand the immediate resignation of the government. Those who were responsible for the attack on October 18 are also responsible for this attack,” he told Reuters by telephone.

He did not elaborate but referred to a letter Bhutto wrote to Musharraf before she returned to Pakistan in which she said if she were attacked, some of Musharraf’s allies and a security agency would be responsible. — Reuters, AFP

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