RAWALPINDI, Pakistan - Benazir Bhutto, the charismatic opposition leader who had promised to restore democracy in Pakistan, was assassinated after a political rally yesterday, setting off a nationwide wave of grief and fury and raising the specter of violent unrest that could threaten the government of President Pervez Musharraf.
The attack, in the city that is the headquarters of the Pakistani military, came just 12 days before general elections, deepening the political crisis in the nuclear-armed nation and raising fears that Musharraf would once again assume sweeping emergency powers to keep order.
Musharraf met with his advisers to consider canceling the parliamentary election for which Bhutto was campaigning when she was killed, but it was unclear whether the vote would go forward.
At least 20 other people died and 50 were wounded in the assault in a scene of chaos and carnage just outside the main gates of a Rawalpindi park where Pakistan's first prime minister was assassinated in 1951.
Bhutto, 54, the leader of the Pakistan People's Party, was attacked while riding in her white SUV shortly after addressing about 5,000 supporters. The vehicle was hit by close-range gunfire, then rocked by a powerful explosion set off by a suicide attacker.
There were conflicting reports on whether there were one or two attackers, but several witnesses said they saw a gunman fire three to five shots at Bhutto and then blow himself up. Islamic extremists had repeatedly threatened the liberal-minded former prime minister.
In Washington, FBI and Homeland Security officials sent a bulletin to law enforcement agencies nationwide citing Islamist websites as saying Al Qaeda had claimed responsibility for the attack and that Ayman al-Zawahri, the second ranking leader of the group, had planned it.
FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said the agency "continues to work with our US intelligence community partners, reviewing the Al Qaeda claims for responsibility for any intelligence value. The validity of those claims is undetermined."
Musharraf called on his compatriots to remain calm; demonstrators, however, aimed their rage at the former general, whom Bhutto often called a dictator. "Musharraf is a dog!" protesters shouted at the hospital where Bhutto died. "Killer, killer!" others chanted. Nine people were reported killed in rioting overnight.
The country was immediately put on a heightened state of alert after the assassination. Police and paramilitary troops poured into the streets, and long into the night, helicopters hovered over Rawalpindi and the adjoining capital, Islamabad. But police generally gave protesters a wide berth, apparently fearful of further inflaming them.
In Rawalpindi, Karachi, and several other cities, furious supporters set tires ablaze and tore down posters of government-backed candidates, throwing them into the flames.
On Nov. 3, the government declared a state of emergency, akin to martial law, and used broad police powers to round up thousands of opponents. Musharraf, a key US ally in the battle against terrorism ended the emergency rule Dec. 15.
Another opposition politician, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, announced after yesterday's attack that he would boycott the Jan. 8 elections in which Bhutto was hoping to recapture the premiership.
Musharraf, who recently stepped down as military chief to become civilian president, ordered three days of mourning for Bhutto.
Within hours of her death, Bhutto's body, placed in a plain wooden coffin, was put aboard a flight for her hometown, the southern city of Larkana. Bhutto will be buried in the family's ancestral village of Garhi Khuda Bakhsh this afternoon, said Nazir Dkhoki, a spokesman for Bhutto's party. He added that Bhutto's husband and three children had arrived from Dubai to attend.
Bhutto was to be buried in the same mausoleum as her father, former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged in 1979 by the military leader who had overthrown him.
In some ways, Bhutto's assassination was a death foretold. She had spoken often about the prospect of a violent end at the hands of Islamic extremists or other assailants. She did so again just before the attack that killed her.
"I risked my life and came here because I believe our country is in danger," she told a flag-waving crowd of supporters at the rally.
Bhutto had said she believed that rogue elements in the government had conspired in a previous assassination attempt in October. She escaped injury in that massive bombing, in which a suicide attacker struck her convoy in Karachi, killing more than 150 people.
From the beginning, security fears had shadowed Bhutto's election campaign. Despite repeated warnings that the former prime minister could be targeted and Bhutto's bitter complaints about the lack of security provided by the government, she had insisted on her right to appear at the big open-air rallies that are the mainstay of Pakistani politics.
Yesterday's attack came at dusk, in the Rawalpindi park where Pakistani prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated in 1951. A few miles away is the site of the prison, now demolished, where Bhutto's father, president from 1971 to 1973 and then prime minister until 1977, was hanged.
Those entering the gated public park encountered some security barriers. Everyone had to pass through metal detectors and undergo a body search, with female police officers frisking women.
But the police presence was relatively light; Bhutto's private security guards hustled her on and off the stage and kept watch over the crowd, cradling automatic weapons. Once she left the rally grounds there was no police escort, only Bhutto's own force of volunteer guards surrounding her car, putting their bodies between her and any attacker.
The assassination represents a blow to the Bush administration, which has been Musharraf's chief backer. US officials had hoped Musharraf and the Western-educated Bhutto would reach a detente that would stabilize the nuclear-armed country and intensify the effort against Islamic fundamentalists hiding in the nation's border regions.
At his ranch near Crawford, Texas, President Bush was told of the assassination during his morning intelligence briefing. "The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan's democracy," he said, reading a statement.
Yesterday's carefully choreographed assault cut Bhutto down without mercy.
As she waved, gunshots sounded and she was hit in the head and neck, aides said. Bhutto sank back into her seat, just as a suicide bomber detonated explosives to the left of her vehicle. People inside the SUV said her face and neck were badly bloodied, apparently from the bullets. As blood poured from her body in the back seat she lost consciousness, aides said, and never regained it.
Aides said they believed the bullet wounds Bhutto initially suffered would likely have been fatal even without the subsequent fiery blast.
"I saw the flash, heard the boom, and there were people with their limbs missing, all of them on the ground," said Ghulam Mustafa, who was a short distance away when the attack took place. The ground was littered with charred debris, scattered shoes, and scraps of clothing soaked in blood.
Screaming, weeping supporters converged on Rawalpindi General Hospital, where Bhutto was taken after the attack.
Doctors performed emergency surgery but Bhutto went into cardiac arrest and her heart could not be restarted, said Dr. Abbas Hayat, head of the hospital's pathology department. She was declared dead at 6:16 p.m. Police apparently did not request an autopsy, Pakistan's Dawn TV reported.
The hospital's plate-glass front doors were shattered by the crush of people trying to enter the building. They flooded into the foyer and up the stairs leading to the operating rooms, forcing attendants to muscle their way through the crowd bearing stretchers that carried the wounded. Some beat their chests and howled with grief.
"She has expired, this dear, dear woman, and I cannot think now what will happen to our country," said Sardar Saleem, a former senator who was seated on the dais with Bhutto at the rally.
"This is the work of those terrorists with whom we are engaged in war," Musharraf said in a nationally televised speech. "I have been saying that the nation faces the greatest threats from these terrorists. . . . We will not rest until we eliminate these terrorists and root them out."
Bhutto's death leaves a leadership void within the Pakistan People's Party, the country's largest political bloc. Within the party she was an autocratic figure, sidelining opponents and grooming no successor. She used the title "chairperson for life."
She was a child of privilege, born into a wealthy land-owning clan, educated at Harvard and Oxford. But she knew pain and privation as well, spending years in squalid jails or in exile before making her first triumphal return to Pakistan in 1986, seven years after her father was executed. She was twice elected prime minister and twice removed on charges of incompetence and corruption.
Bhutto could be imperious, but her charisma was undeniable. At the rally, followers waited excitedly for a glimpse of her, pressing against the security fence that separated her from the crowd.
The rally, meant to build support for Bhutto's party in advance of next month's election, was her first public appearance in Rawalpindi since she had returned to Pakistan. At the time she had planned a rally here but the government canceled it, citing the threat of a suicide attack, and briefly placed Bhutto under house arrest when she tried to go ahead with a rally anyway.
CNN reported yesterday that in October, Bhutto sent an e-mail to her US spokesman, Mark Siegel, in which she wrote that if something "bad" occurred, Musharraf should be among the people held responsible. "I have been made to feel insecure by his minions," she wrote.
Officials declined to provide her with cellphone jamming devices, to protect against roadside bombs, or four police vehicles to surround her SUV, she wrote. Government officials say they protected her as best they could.
In the violence after her death, one man was killed in a shootout between police and protesters in Tando Allahyar, a town 120 miles north of Karachi, Pakistan's commercial hub, said Mayor Kanwar Naveed. At least four others, including a police officer, were killed in Karachi; two were killed elsewhere in southern Sindh province and two in Lahore, police said.
Karachi shopkeepers quickly shut their stores as protesters burned vehicles, a gas station, and tires on the roads, said Fayyaz Leghri, a local police official. Gunmen shot and wounded two police officers, he said.
Bhutto's supporters in many towns burned banks, shops, and state-run grocery stores. Some torched ruling party election offices, according to Pakistani media.
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