KARACHI, Pakistan — A suicide bombing in a crowd welcoming former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto killed at least 123 people Thursday night, shattering her celebratory procession through Pakistan’s biggest city after eight years in exile.
Two explosions went off near a truck carrying Bhutto, but police and officials of her party said she was not injured and was hurried to her house. An Associated Press photo showed a dazed-looking Bhutto being helped away.
There were conflicting reports on the number of people killed in the blasts. The Associated Press, citing officials from six hospitals, reported 126 dead and 248 wounded. Reuters, citing witnesses and a police official, reported 123 killed and more than 260 injured. There was no way to immediately reconcile the difference, but these figures make the attack one of the deadliest bomb strikes in Pakistan's history.
Bhutto flew home to lead her Pakistan People's Party in January parliamentary elections, drawing cheers from supporters massed in a sea of the party's red, green and black flags. The police chief said 150,000 were in the streets, while other onlookers estimated twice that.
The throngs reflected Bhutto's enduring political clout, but she has made enemies of Islamic militants by taking a pro-U.S. line and negotiating a possible political alliance with Pakistan's military ruler, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Security concerns from the start
An estimated 20,000 security officers had been deployed to protect Bhutto and her cavalcade of motorized rickshaws, colorful buses, cars and motorcycles in the streets of Pakistan's largest city.
Authorities had urged Bhutto to use a helicopter to reduce the risk of attack amid threats from extremists sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qaida, but she brushed off the concerns.
"I am not scared. I am thinking of my mission," she had told reporters on the plane from Dubai. "This is a movement for democracy because we are under threat from extremists and militants."
Last month, Bhutto told CNN she realized she was a target. Islamic militants, she said, "don't believe in women governing nations, so they will try to plot against me, but these are risks that must be taken. I'm prepared to take them."
Bhutto refuses to use protective cubicle
Leaving the airport, Bhutto refused to use a bulletproof glass cubicle that had been built atop the truck taking her to the tomb of Pakistan's founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, to give a speech. She squeezed between other party officials along a railing at the front.
Her procession had been creeping toward the center of Karachi for 10 hours, moving at a snail's pace while dancing and cheering supporters swarmed around the truck, when a small explosion erupted near the front of the vehicle.
That was quickly followed by a larger blast just feet from the truck, setting an escorting police van on fire and breaking windows in Bhutto's vehicle. Party members on top of the truck scrambled to the ground, one man jumping while others climbed down a ladder or over the side.
"Evidence available at the scene is suggesting it was a suicide bombing and ... exploded near police vehicles destroying the two police vans escorting Benazir Bhutto's truck," police officer Raja Umer Khitab said. He said several policemen died.
Scene from bomb attacks
Bodies lay motionless in the street, under a mural reading "Long Live Bhutto" on the side of the truck.
The bombs exploded just after the truck crossed a bridge about halfway from the airport to the tomb.
Pools of blood, broken glass, tires, motorcycles and bits of clothing littered the ground. Men carried the injured away from burning cars. One bystander came upon a body, checked for signs of life, and moved on.
Some of the injured were rushed into a hospital emergency room on stretchers, and others were carried in rescuers' arms. Many of the wounded were covered in blood, and some had their clothes ripped off.
Two CNBC staff members in Pakistan were injured in the blast, according to the network. A camera operator and a correspondent had shrapnel injuries and were recoving in a Karachi hospital.
(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal, which operates CNBC.)
World reacts to attack
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was "shocked" by the blast, his office said in a statement.
"The Secretary-General strongly condemns this terrorist attack and expresses condolences to the families of the victims. He trusts that all political forces will act together to strengthen national unity," it said.
The United States condemned "the violent attack in Pakistan and mourns the loss of innocent life there," said Gordon Johndroe, foreign affairs spokesman for President Bush. "Extremists will not be allowed to stop Pakistanis from selecting their representatives through an open and democratic process."
Richard Haass, president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, said the attack reveals "one of the fundamental realities of Pakistan today is that the government is not in total control of the country."
He said he did not think Musharraf would declare a state of emergency, saying there were more serious challenges to state authority recently, like the standoff between militants and police at Islamabad's Red Mosque .
Return began with jubilation
The bloodshed marred what had been a jubilant day for Bhutto. She received a rapturous welcome from tens of thousands of supporters, many craning from tree branches and foot bridges to glimpse her return.
The 54-year-old politician wept for joy.
"I feel very, very emotional coming back to my country," Bhutto told AP Television News at the airport, after passing under a Quran held over her head as she got off the plane.
"I dreamt of this day for so many months, and years. I counted the hours, the minutes and the seconds just to see this land, sky and grass. I'm so emotionally overwhelmed," she said, dressed in green with a white head scarf to match Pakistan's national flag.
Bhutto had paved her route back to Pakistan through negotiations with Musharraf, a longtime political rival whose rule she has often condemned but whose proclaimed mission to defeat Islamic extremism she shares.
The talks yielded an amnesty covering the corruption charges that made Bhutto leave Pakistan, and could lead to a political alliance uniting moderates in parliamentary elections for a fight against militants allied with al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Musharraf had urged Bhutto to delay her return because of political uncertainty in Pakistan, including a pending court challenge to his presidential election victory this month.
The Supreme Court will rule soon on whether he was eligible to compete in the vote by lawmakers, since he also holds the post of army chief. If he is confirmed for a new five-year presidential term, Musharraf has promised to quit the military and restore civilian rule.
After flying in, Bhutto declared she returned to fight for democracy and to help Pakistan shake off its reputation as a hotbed of international terrorism.
"That's not the real image of Pakistan. The people that you see outside are the real image of Pakistan. These are the decent and hardworking middle-classes and working classes of Pakistan who want to be empowered so they can build a moderate, modern nation," she said.
Bhutto became leader of the Pakistan People's Party more than two decades ago after the military's 1979 execution of its founder, her father Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a populist prime minister still exalted by many Pakistanis as the finest leader in the country's 60-year history.
She served twice as the democratically elected prime minister between 1988 and 1996 — the first female premier in the Muslim world — but both governments fell amid allegations of corruption and misrule. After Musharraf seized power, she was charged with illegally amassing properties and bank accounts overseas while in office and she left Pakistan.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.