Rioting rocks Pakistan as officials weigh election delay
Toll following assassination rises above 40
KARACHI - Nationwide rioting brought life in Pakistan to a standstill yesterday and prompted government officials to consider delaying next month's election, as the country continued to be torn by conflict over Thursday's killing of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
The death toll from the violence climbed above 40, with many residents staying indoors out of fear and others venturing out to torch government buildings or to do battle with police firing tear gas.
The unrest turned streets in this normally frenetic city, Pakistan's largest, into empty expanses of asphalt. Dozens of burned-out cars and buses sat on the sides of the roads, evidence of nighttime mobs that roamed the city in defiance of a heavy security presence that now includes patrols of army soldiers in addition to police.
Food shortages were reported in some areas, and a nearly complete shutdown of gasoline stations and other shops brought business to a virtual halt. With a large percentage of the population idle and angry, there was anxiety yesterday that the violence could worsen.
"These are the sentiments of the people. This is their natural reaction," said Zahid Hussain, 30, a truck driver who pulled over by the side of the road Thursday night in rural Sindh Province and has not moved out of fear of being attacked.
Pakistanis were scheduled to go to the polls Jan. 8, but with the nation on edge, the election commission is expected to convene an emergency meeting tomorrow to make a decision on whether to postpone the long-awaited vote.
Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party called a meeting today to choose a new leader and to decide whether to participate in the parliamentary election. If the party pulls out, it would seriously damage the credibility of the election, which is already being boycotted by rival opposition leader Nawaz Sharif.
The election, which would determine who controls parliament and shares power with President Pervez Musharraf, has been seen internationally and domestically as a crucial test of Musharraf's willingness to move the country back toward democracy.
In addition to the concerns about violence marring the vote, opposition groups have long said they believe that Musharraf and his allies plan to rig the polls.
Bhutto had been campaigning to win back the post of prime minister at a rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi on Thursday when she was killed in an attack. The exact circumstances of her death remained a source of major controversy yesterday.
While supporters of Bhutto continued to blame the government - especially allies of Musharraf - for her killing, security officials said Friday that they had found evidence that Islamic extremists from Al Qaeda and the Taliban had organized the attack.
An Interior Ministry spokesman, Brigadier Javed Iqbal Cheema, said Friday that security personnel had intercepted a conversation in which militant leader Baitullah Mehsud "congratulated his people for carrying out this cowardly act." Mehsud is the leader of a Taliban group in the tribal area of South Waziristan that is believed to be linked to Al Qaeda.
Mehsud's group said yesterday that it played no role in Bhutto's killing, and aides to the slain former prime minister accused the government of a coverup.
The government has said that Bhutto was not killed by bullets or shrapnel, as initially reported, but hit her head on a sunroof lever as a bomb rocked her vehicle and she ducked for cover from the attack.
Yesterday, Bhutto spokeswoman Sherry Rehman, who was in the vehicle that rushed the slain leader to the hospital, hotly disputed the government's account, saying it was an attempt to excuse inadequate security.
"She was bleeding profusely, as she had received a bullet wound in her neck. My car was full of blood. Three doctors at the hospital told us that she had received bullet wounds. I was among the people who gave her a final bath. We saw a bullet wound in the back of her neck," Rehman said.
"What the government is saying is actually dangerous and nonsensical," she said. "They are pouring salt on our wounds. There are no findings. They are just lying."
The government stood firmly by its account yesterday and insisted it needed no foreign help in any investigation.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Pakistan had not asked for help. "It's a responsibility of the government of Pakistan to ensure that the investigation is thorough. If Pakistani authorities ask for assistance, we would review the request," he said.
US intelligence officials yesterday expressed increasing confidence that the attack had been carried out by insurgents with ties to Al Qaeda, but they cautioned that there was no definitive proof.
Mehsud has denied an earlier government contention that he was targeting Bhutto.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.