KARACHI, Pakistan — Benazir Bhutto blamed al-Qaida and Taliban militants Friday for the assassination attempt against her that killed at least 136 people, and declared she would risk her life to restore democracy in Pakistan and prevent an extremist takeover.
The former premier presented a long list of foes who would like to see her dead — from loyalists of a previous military regime that executed her politician father to Islamic hard-liners bent on stopping a female leader from modernizing Pakistan.
“We believe democracy alone can save Pakistan from disintegration and a militant takeover,” Bhutto said at a news conference less than 24 hours after bombs exploded near a truck carrying her in a festive procession marking her return from eight years of self-imposed exile.
“We are prepared to risk our lives and we are prepared to risk our liberty, but we are not prepared to surrender our great nation to the militants,” the pro-Western leader added.
Bhutto, who came home to lead her party in January parliamentary elections, said she had been warned before returning that Taliban and al-Qaida suicide squads would try to kill her, saying a “brotherly” nation provided her with a list of telephone numbers of suicide squads.
Bhutto warned of threat
She said she warned of that threat in a letter Tuesday to Pakistan’s current military leader, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, with whom she has been negotiating a possible political alliance.
“There was one suicide squad from the Taliban elements, one suicide squad from al-Qaida, one suicide squad from Pakistani Taliban and a fourth — a group — I believe from Karachi,” she said.
Bhutto said it was suspicious that streetlights failed as her procession made its way from Karachi’s airport toward downtown Thursday night. She said cell phone service also was out.
“I’m not accusing the government, but certain individuals who abuse their positions and powers,” she said.
She pointed to supporters of the former military regime of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, who seized power in 1977 and hanged her father, deposed Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Zia also jailed Benazir Bhutto several times before his death in a mysterious plane crash in 1988.
Bhutto said the military thugs of the 1970s who terrorized her family and today’s Islamic militants share the same thirst “to kill and maim innocent people and deny them the right to a representative government.”
All of them want to destabilize Pakistan, and the suicide bomb attack was part of that campaign, she said.
“It was an attack by a militant minority that does not enjoy the support of the people of Pakistan, that has only triumphed in a military dictatorship,” she said.
U.S. reacts to blasts
Washington said the blasts showed the challenges as Pakistan tries to build a moderate Islamic democracy.
“It tells you a lot about the kinds of people we are battling against every day, that any flicker of democracy they want to find a way to beat it down and stamp it out,” said White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto.
Pakistani officials, who said Thursday night’s bloodshed would not disrupt election plans, said one suicide bomber staged the attack.
Authorities said the assault bore the hallmarks of a Taliban-allied warlord and the al-Qaida terror network — with a man first throwing a grenade into the sea of people around Bhutto’s convoy and then blowing himself up with a bomb wrapped in bolts and other pieces of metal.
Pakistani television showed video of what it said was the severed head of the suspected bomber, an unshaven man in his 20s with curly hair and green eyes.
Officials said the warlord was Baitullah Mehsud, a leader on the unstable Afghan border who threatened earlier this month to meet Bhutto’s return to Pakistan with suicide attacks, according to local media reports. An associate of Mehsud denied Taliban involvement.
Ex-PM: Other blasts foiled
Bhutto diputed the government’s version of the attack, saying that there were two suicide bombers and that her security guards also had found a third man armed with a pistol and another with a suicide vest.
Bhutto’s procession had been creeping toward the center of Karachi for 10 hours Thursday when a small explosion erupted near the front of her truck as well-wishers swarmed around it. A larger blast quickly followed, destroying two police vans.
Party officials said the 54-year-old Bhutto had left the open top of the truck and gone inside to rest her swollen feet only a few minutes earlier. She was reviewing a speech with an adviser when they heard a loud bang.
“Something in my heart told me that this is not a firecracker, it is a suicide attack,” she said at the news conference. “You could see the light, and then as we waited for 30 seconds to 60 seconds, we heard the sound and saw the huge orange light and bodies spilling all over.”
She praised her security guards. “They refused to let the suicide bomber, the second suicide bomber, get near the truck. So the second suicide bomber hit the security guard wall ... he couldn’t hit the truck.”
Rejecting criticism that she had endangered her supporters, Bhutto said it was the right decision to return to help her homeland and she was willing to pay the price.
Bhutto predicted extremists would now try to attack her homes in Karachi, the country’s biggest city, and her hometown of Larkana. Officials of her Pakistan People’s Party guarded her Karachi residence Friday, forming a human chain around the building to keep people back.
Attack may spur political reconcilation
The attack that wrecked Bhutto’s jubilant homecoming parade was one of the deadliest in Pakistan’s history, with six hospitals reporting a total of 136 dead and some 250 wounded.
While the carnage underlined the threats to stability, the attack also was likely to push Bhutto and Musharraf toward an alliance that would be backed by the U.S. and others in the West.
Musharraf, who phoned Bhutto on Friday to express his condolences, is a longtime rival but they share moderate views and support working with the United States in fighting militant groups.
Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani said the parliamentary ballot would go ahead as planned in January. “Elections will be held on time,” he said.
Bhutto served twice as prime minister between 1988 and 1996, but both of her governments ended amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement. She left Pakistan after Musharraf seized power in 1999 and corruption charges were filed against her.
She was able to return after her power-sharing talks with the general brought her immunity covering the corruption cases.
Musharraf won re-election to the presidency in a vote this month by lawmakers that is being challenged in the Supreme Court. If confirmed for a new five-year term, he has promised to quit the military and restore civilian rule.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.