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French Version

Pakistan's Bhutto assassinated by suicide bomber

Clashes erupt across country as supporters react to killing

Pakistani opposition leader and former premier Benazir Bhutto was assassinated at a party rally late Thursday, plunging the nation deeper into crisis less than two weeks before elections.

She was shot in the neck before a suicide bomber blew himself up at a park in the northern city of Rawalpindi, killing around 20 people, after Bhutto had just addressed supporters.

The slaying stunned leaders around the world who urged calm and warned that extremists must not be allowed to destabilize the nuclear-armed nation before the January 8 parliamentary vote.

Several witnesses said they heard at least one shot before the blast, which tore off limbs. People ran in panic, screaming as they trampled over pieces of human flesh. Puddles of blood dotted the road.

"There was an enormous explosion, and then I saw body parts flying through the air," said Mirza Fahin, a professor at a local college. "When the dust cleared, I saw mutilated bodies lying in blood. I have never seen anything so horrible in my life - just parts of human beings, flesh, lying in the road."

Unrest broke out in several areas as mobs of protesters torched buildings, trucks and shops, blocked roads and uprooted rail tracks. At least four people were shot dead as rioting broke out in several cities across Pakistan following the assassination, police said.

Two people were killed in the eastern city of Lahore where buildings and vehicles were abalze, a police officer said. Sporadic gunfire could also be heard echoing around the city.

Two other people were shot dead in the southern province of Sindh. A clash between police and protesters in the Sindh town of Tando Allahyar left one protester dead, local mayor Kanwar Naveed Jamil told reporters.

And another man was shot dead in Khairpur district, local police chief Din Mohammad Baloch said.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who announced three days of national mourning, urged people to remain peaceful "so that the evil designs of terrorists can be defeated," state television reported.

The Interior Ministry said police and paramilitary forces across Pakistan had been placed on the highest "red alert" level.

There was no claim of responsibility for the attack, but Bhutto had in the past accused elements in the intelligence services of trying to kill her.

She also said she had received death threats from Islamic militant groups, including Al-Qaeda.

Police officials said Bhutto succumbed to her injuries in hospital, but it was not immediately known if it was the gunshot wound that killed her.

"The attacker fired and then blew himself up," said an official, who asked not to be identified.

"She was waving to the crowd from the sunroof of her car and then there was a blast," Bhutto spokesman Farhatullah Babar told state television.

The attack calls into question whether the election can be held safely and on schedule, and raises speculation whether Musharraf will seek to re-impose emergency rule.

Bhutto, 54, became the first ever female prime minister of a Muslim nation when she took the helm in 1988 for the first of her two premierships.

Her father, also a prime minister, was hanged by the military in 1979 after being ousted from power. Her youngest brother, Shahnawaz, died under mysterious circumstances in France; the family insisted he was poisoned, but no charges were brought.

Educated at Oxford and Harvard, she was seen by the West as the best chance of moderate government in Pakistan, and her return here in October after eight years of self-exile brought hopes of a power-sharing deal with Musharraf.

But her homecoming rally was hit in the deadliest such attack in Pakistani history, leaving 139 dead. She only survived after ducking down at the moment of impact behind her armored vehicle.

Meanwhile the talks with Musharraf dissolved in acrimony after he imposed a state of emergency on November 3, lifting it only six weeks later.

World leaders immediately condemned the attack, expressing concern for Pakistan's upcoming elections and security. Pakistan has experienced a devastating wave of Islamist violence in recent months - just last week a suicide bomber killed over 50 Muslims in an attack targeting a former minister and ally of Musharraf.

Leaders are urged restraint following the assassination. But unrest broke out in Karachi, Bhutto's stronghold, where demonstrators torched scores of vehicles and blocked key roads; in Peshawar in the northwest where police used tear gas and batons to break up crowds; and in the central city of Multan.

Some protesters fired shots into the air and many shouted slogans including "Musharraf is a dog" and "Long live Bhutto." Violence also broke out in other towns.

A shaken Nawaz Sharif, Bhutto's main rival in the election, said he shared the grief of the entire nation and promised to take up her fight.

"I don't think anybody stands to gain or [will] look to gain," he told the BBC, accusing the government of not doing enough to ensure her security. "It's a very serious situation for the country today."

Sharif has called for a complete nationwide strike on Friday to mourn Bhutto.

Earlier in the day four people were shot dead and 17 wounded at a campaign rally for Sharif, police said. Sharif's party blamed rival supporters of President Pervez Musharraf.

Beirut 28-12-2007
The Daily Star

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