ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - As slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was laid to rest in her ancestral village yesterday, the government of President Pervez Musharraf placed the blame for her assassination on an Al Qaeda operative and said other politicians were also under threat.
The government cited intercepted telephone conversations in pointing the finger at militant leader Baitullah Mahsud, who is believed to head a Taliban-linked group near the borderlands near Afghanistan.
It also blamed him for an earlier attempt on Bhutto's life in October; after that bombing, Bhutto had said she believed rogue elements within the intelligence establishment or the security forces had colluded with Islamic militants in the attack.
In an apparent attempt to deflect anger from Musharraf, who has been accused of failing to provide Bhutto with adequate security against bombers, the government went on to make a startling claim: that she was killed neither by gunshots nor shrapnel in Thursday's attack in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, but instead died of a skull fracture when she hit her head on her SUV's open sunroof. Her supporters scoffed at the assertion.
Violence flared in several Pakistani cities, leaving at least 30 people dead during the first 24 hours after the former prime minister's death. The government deployed thousands of police, paramilitary troops, and soldiers across the country, giving those in the most volatile areas shoot-to-kill orders against looters and rioters.
For many, the assassination of the country's best-known political figure was a cataclysmic event, a collectively experienced tragedy. "It's like your Kennedy assassination," said college student Imran Ashfaq, his eyes reddened as he watched the TV news in a nearly deserted teahouse here in the capital. "I'll always remember this time."
Much of the country was virtually shut down after the government decreed three days of mourning and Bhutto's followers called for a general strike. In most cities and towns, streets were deserted and shops closed; people stayed home from schools and offices.
Pakistani television stations played endless footage of Bhutto, showing old photos of her as a teenager, a glamorous young woman, a dark-eyed mother cuddling her young children.
Banner headlines in many Pakistani newspapers were unabashedly emotional. "Cry the beloved country," read the headline in the English-language paper The News.
In Bhutto's remote home village of Naudero, tens of thousands of weeping, chanting mourners lined the route taken by an ambulance bearing her simple wooden casket. Her husband and three teenage children escorted the body to the family shrine for burial beside her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged nearly three decades ago by the military regime that had overthrown him.
Bhutto's death threw Pakistan's political world into chaos less than two weeks before parliamentary elections that were to have shown the West that this precarious country was moving toward democracy.
Yesterday, Prime Minister Mohammedmian Soomro said the government had no immediate plans to postpone the Jan. 8 elections, despite Bhutto's death and boycotts by other politicians. But he said the government was still consulting with political party leaders.
The Bush administration has pushed for the elections as a way to signal that this vital US ally in the fight against terrorism was moving toward true democracy. In the hours after Bhutto's killing, the administration said the elections should go ahead as planned, but later there appeared to be some easing of that stance.
"We believe that if elections can proceed as scheduled, smoothly and safely, then we would certainly encourage that happening," US State Department spokesman Tom Casey said yesterday. "I think regardless of whether they happen on the eighth or some date shortly thereafter, what's important is that there is a certainty on the part of not only Pakistan's political leadership but the Pakistani people that there will be a date certain that they will be choosing their new government and new leadership."
In addition to blaming Taliban leader Mahsud for Bhutto's death, Pakistan's Interior Ministry contradicted reports by witnesses and doctors that Bhutto had been shot and then cut down by a suicide bomber, saying she had been hit by neither bullets nor shrapnel.
"No bullets . . . were found in her body," Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema told journalists, saying she was fatally wounded when the percussion of the blast caused Bhutto, who had been standing up in her SUV to wave to supporters, to hit her head on the sunroof's handle.
Incredulous aides to Bhutto rejected the claim. "We all saw what happened to her," said one senior associate, who spoke on condition of anonymity. After the attack, witnesses described seeing a bloodied Bhutto.
Violence was concentrated in the cities of Hyderabad and Karachi, both located in Bhutto's home province of Sindh, where troops were sent into the streets after protesters furious over Bhutto's killing torched cars, buildings, railway cars, and fast-food restaurants. Unrest also hit Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan and a frequent flash point for fighting.
Government officials said "criminal elements" were taking advantage of the disorder and joining in the violence, looting shops and banks.
The Interior Ministry said the government accusation against militant leader Mahsud was based on an electronic intercept of an alleged telephone conversation between him and another person.
In the transcript released by the Interior Ministry, Mahsud is quoted as commenting on the "spectacular job" done by the attackers.
"They were very brave boys who killed her," the transcript quoted Mahsud as saying, without mentioning Bhutto by name. The government did not disclose how the transcript was obtained, or when and where the recording was made.