Video: Bhutto stands firm

updated 10/22/2007 8:21:47 PM ET 2007-10-23T00:21:47

A senior government official on Monday rejected a call from former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto for U.S. and British experts to help investigate the devastating suicide attack on her homecoming procession.

The Thursday night bombing in Karachi killed 136 people, wounded hundreds more, and left open the possibility campaign rallies would be banned ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections. But Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said foreign experts would not be brought into the probe, despite Bhutto’s call Sunday for their involvement.

“I would categorically reject this,” he told reporters. “We are conducting the investigation in a very objective manner.”

Bhutto, who returned after eight years in exile, escaped the blast because she had stepped into her armored bus minutes before the bomb went off.

The government has rejected Bhutto’s allegation that elements within the current administration and security apparatus were trying to kill her. She claims they are remnants of the regime of former military leader Gen. Zia-ul Haq, who oversaw the creation of mujahedeen groups that fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Veterans of that struggle later formed al-Qaida and the Taliban militant movement.

Musharraf vows thorough probe
Bhutto has called for an independent inquiry. She has also questioned why many streetlights were not working as her convoy inched its way through the darkness, and noted the chief investigator is a police officer who had been present as her husband was allegedly tortured while in custody on corruption charges in 1999.

“The inquiry should be led by Pakistan, but the government should call on foreign experts so that the killers .... can be brought to justice without any doubts,” she told reporters on Monday in Karachi.

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has promised to conduct a thorough probe into the bombing. Police are questioning three people but have yet to announce any breakthrough.

Ban on campaign rallies
Islamists and backers of another former premier, meanwhile, on Monday condemned a ban on campaign rallies proposed after the suicide bombing, calling it an attempt to rig elections that could lead to Bhutto sharing power with Pakistan’s U.S.-allied president.

Freewheeling rallies have long formed the core of campaigning in this South Asian nation.

Sadiq ul-Farooq, a leader of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N party, claimed the proposal was part of a plan to rig election results by preventing “popular opposition leaders from reaching their voters.” Video: Exclusive: Benazir Bhutto interviewed

Sherpao said the proposal would allow gatherings in specific, well-protected areas, but would ban large processions and rallies. Further violence, he indicated, could lead to a rescheduling of the vote.

“We do not want to postpone the elections and we do not want any sort of any excuse for that,” he said. “We want a peaceful, conducive atmosphere.”

Analysts warn that curtailed campaigning could hurt the elections’ credibility and fuel political turmoil in the nuclear-armed nation as it faces a surge in Islamic extremism.

Toward an alliance?
There are growing signs that Musharraf and Bhutto are moving toward an alliance with a common mission to fight Islamic extremism, despite misgivings in the pro-Musharraf ruling party.

That would leave Sharif, who was ousted when Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup, to lead an opposition likely to include religious parties bitterly opposed to Pakistan’s front-line role in the U.S.-led war on terror.

Ameer ul-Azeem, spokesman for the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, a coalition of opposition religious parties, denounced Musharraf as a “dictator who calls himself a democrat.”

“Since Musharraf knows the ruling party is not able to organize any big rallies, he is now thinking of depriving opposition parties of their right to campaign,” ul-Azeem said.

While authorities allowed Bhutto to return, Sharif was immediately deported to Saudi Arabia when he flew into Pakistan on Sept. 10 from exile on a declared mission to force Musharraf from power. Ul-Farooq insisted Sharif would try to return again within the next month.

Sharif served two terms as prime minister in the 1990s and remains Pakistan’s most popular politician according to a recent poll.

Bhutto said Sunday that while there should be no restrictions on political parties, each party would assess whether it was safe to go ahead with rallies.

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