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Pakistan blames Taliban leader for Bhutto's slaying

The government, in a possible move to deflect public anger, says a skull fracture killed her, not bullets or the bombing.

December 29, 2007|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — As slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was laid to rest Friday in her ancestral village, the government of President Pervez Musharraf blamed her assassination on a Taliban commander and said other politicians also were under threat.

The government cited intercepted telephone conversations in pointing the finger at Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud, who operates in the regions bordering Afghanistan. It also blamed him for an earlier attack on Bhutto's convoy in October; Bhutto had said she believed rogue elements within the intelligence establishment or the security forces had colluded with Islamic militants in the bombing.

Mahsud reportedly denied involvement in Bhutto's death.

Musharraf has been accused of failing to provide Bhutto with adequate security, and in an apparent attempt to deflect popular anger, the government went on to make a startling claim: that she was killed neither by gunshots nor the bombing in Thursday's attack in 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 officers, 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 collective 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 in Islamabad, 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 tightly shuttered; people stayed home from schools and offices.

Pakistani television stations played endless footage of Bhutto, showing old black-and-white photos of her as a gawky teen, a glamorous, reed-thin 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, its white-on-black type stained red as if with drops of blood. "Farewell Benazir."

In Bhutto's remote ancestral village of Naudero, in Sindh province, tens of thousands of weeping, chanting mourners lined the route taken by an ambulance bearing her simple wooden coffin. 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 Pakistani politics into chaos less than two weeks before parliamentary elections that were to have shown the West that this precarious country was moving toward democracy. On Friday, interim Prime Minister Mohammedmian Soomro said the government did not plan to postpone the Jan. 8 elections, despite Bhutto's death and boycotts announced by other opposition politicians.

The Bush administration has pushed for the elections as a way to signal that this vital U.S. ally in its "war on terror" was moving toward meaningful democracy. In the hours after Bhutto's slaying, the administration said the elections should go ahead as planned, but on Friday, 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," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.

"I think regardless of whether they happen on the 8th 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."

The Pakistani Interior Ministry's assertion that Bhutto had not been hit by either bullets or shrapnel contradicted reports by witnesses and doctors.

Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema told journalists that Bhutto, who had been standing up in her SUV to wave to supporters, was fatally injured when the percussion of the blast caused her head to hit the sunroof's handle. "No bullets . . . were found in her body," he said.

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.

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