Pakistani opposition leader Bhutto assassinated after rally

Friday, December 28, 2007
Pakistan's former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto at her last rally in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on Thursday, Dec. 27, 2007. Bhutto was assassinated with 20 others in a suicide attack as she left the rally. (AP Photo/B.K.Bangash)

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan -- Moments after a euphoric crowd stretched its arms toward Benazir Bhutto, moments after the charismatic former prime minister made herself vulnerable by saluting her followers through a car's sunroof, the street was awash with blood.

And in that chaotic instant, a dangerous world became even more dangerous.

Efforts to restore democracy in Pakistan suffered a crushing blow with Thursday's assassination of the 54-year-old Bhutto after a rally. A country that has nuclear weapons was even more destabilized, and America's hopes to maintain Pakistan as a bulwark against terrorism were shaken.

On whose behalf did the suicidal assassin kill Bhutto, 20 others and himself? No one knew for certain. But clearly, this was a victory for extremists.

President Pervez Musharraf blamed Islamic terrorists. "Today, after this tragic incident, I want to express my firm resolve ... we will not rest until we eliminate these terrorists and root them out," he told a national television audience.

A supporter of Pakistan's former prime minister Benazir Bhutto cried out Thursday as he mourned the killing of Bhutto, as a car burned after being set afire by protesters in Lahore, Pakistan. Bhutto was shot and killed Thursday in a suicide attack on her vehicle in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. (K.M.Chaudary ~ Associated Press)

Musharraf debated whether to postpone Jan. 8 elections -- a bitter irony, because Bhutto had returned from exile to run in that election against Musharraf, leader of a military government since a 1999 coup. Another opposition politician, Nawaz Sharif, announced he would boycott any vote in the wake of Bhutto's murder.

In the United States, a tense-looking President Bush condemned the attack "by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan's democracy." Bush spoke briefly by phone with Musharraf; the Bush administration had banked on a plan to stabilize Pakistan with a rapprochement between Bhutto and Musharraf.

Across Pakistan, the shock of Thursday's bloodshed faded into violence, as Bhutto's enraged supporters burned vehicles and attacked shops. At least nine people died in the mayhem that followed. As news of her death spread, supporters gathered at the hospital where she had been taken, smashed glass doors, stoned cars.

Rightly or wrongly, they knew whom to blame: They chanted, "Killer, Killer, Musharraf."

Hours before, addressing more than 5,000 supporters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, Bhutto scoffed at reports that foreign troops would be sent here to help fight resurgent militants linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida in the area bordering Afghanistan.

"Why should foreign troops come in? We can take care of this, I can take care of this, you can take care of this," she said.

Then, as Bhutto left the rally in a white sport utility vehicle, the attacker struck.

Sardar Qamar Hayyat, an official from Bhutto's party, was about 10 yards away. A smiling Bhutto stuck her head out of the sunroof and responded to the chants of her supporters, he said.

"Then I saw a thin, young man jumping toward her vehicle from the back and opening fire. Moments later, I saw her speeding vehicle going away. That was the time when I heard a blast and fell down," Hayyat said.

The blast was a suicide bomb the young man was apparently carrying.

The carnage was immediate.

Bhutto was rushed into emergency surgery. A doctor on the surgical team said a bullet in the back of her neck damaged her spinal cord before exiting from the side of her head. Another bullet pierced the back of her shoulder and came out through her chest, he said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. She was given an open heart massage, but the spinal cord damage was too great, he said.

"At 6:16 p.m. she expired," said Wasif Ali Khan, a member of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party who was at Rawalpindi General Hospital.

Bhutto's supporters questioned why the government had not provided her better security in the wake of death threats and previous attempts on her life -- including a bombing that killed more than 140 people when she returned from exile in October.

Makhdoom Amin Fahim, chairman of Bhutto's party, called for a thorough investigation. "The Bhutto family and the party should know who is behind the attack," he said.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: