Tens of thousands of people beat their chests in anguish at Benazir Bhutto’s tomb on Thursday as they marked the end of 40 days of mourning for the slain opposition leader.
The solemn Muslim ceremonies at the family mausoleum in southern Pakistan marked the start of campaigning by her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) for elections on February 18, which are seen as a crucial step towards democracy.
Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower and political successor, said in a speech to the massive crowd outside the white marble building that he feared he would be assassinated like his late wife.
”We will avenge Benazir Bhutto’s martyrdom in a democratic way,” said Zardari, wearing a traditional embroidered Sindhi cap and speaking against a backdrop of the party’s black, green and red flag.
”If I succeed, you will see me alive. If I am martyred like her, you will be the ones to take my coffin to the grave.”
Heavy security was in place for the ceremonies in the rural southern village of Garhi Khuda Bakhsh, where Bhutto was buried the day after her assassination on December 27.
Hundreds of paramilitary troops and police stood guard, while walk-though scanners were set up to check the crowds flooding into the mausoleum to throw rose petals over her grave.
Bhutto was killed in a gun and suicide-bomb attack in the garrison city of Rawalpindi that touched off days of rioting and forced the elections to be postponed by six weeks.
The government has accused a tribal warlord with links to the Taliban and al-Qaeda of masterminding her murder, but Bhutto wrote before her death that government and intelligence figures were plotting to kill her.
A team of detectives from Britain’s Scotland Yard, called by President Pervez Musharraf to help investigate her murder, returned to Pakistan earlier on Thursday and is set to present its report by the end of the week.
Pakistani authorities have warned that politicians are at risk of further attacks in the run-up to elections. Many have dismissed it as a way of keeping parties opposed to President Pervez Musharraf off the streets.
Despite the warnings, and the bitter cold, many visitors, including women and children, stayed overnight in tents before rising at dawn to chant verses from the Qur’an.
People arrived on foot — some from towns hundreds of kilometres away — and others by trucks and buses. Many were listening to cassettes of Bhutto speeches.
”We have to win this election — in our leader’s words, democracy is the best revenge,” mourner Nabi Bux Kalhoro said as songs of mourning blared over loudspeakers.
The PPP has said it will officially begin campaigning from Thursday for the polls, which have so far seen none of the raucous electioneering that is customary in Pakistan.
With the party reportedly riven by divisions following the killing of its charismatic yet dominating leader, it began earlier this week to try to coalesce support behind Zardari by making public Bhutto’s will.
The document names him as her political heir, dispelling rumours that she had actually picked their 19-year-old son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari over her husband, who has been hit by unproven corruption charges.
Bilawal was later chosen by the party as co-chairperson, but Zardari is acting as regent while Bilawal completes his degree at Oxford University. — AFP