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Al-Qaida figure behind attack, Pakistan says

Pakistan on Friday blamed al-Qaida and the Taliban for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and said another key opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, is also under threat of militant attack.
Image: Asif Ali Zardari (R) husband of former Pakistani premier Benazir Bhutto and his son Bilawal (L) shower rose petals on the grave of Bhutto
Benazir Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and son Bilawal shower rose petals on her grave Friday in the town of Garhi Khuda Bakhsh.Asif Hassan / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

As hundreds of thousands attended the burial of Benazir Bhutto at her family's mausoleum Friday, Pakistan blamed al-Qaida and the Taliban for the assassination and said another key opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, is also under threat of militant attack.

“We have the evidence that al-Qaida and Taliban were behind the suicide attack on Benazir Bhutto,” Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz said.

The government also reported that Bhutto died from a skull fracture suffered when her head slammed against her car during a suicide attack — not from bullet wounds.

The interior ministry released a transcript Friday of a purported conversation between militant leader Baitullah Mehsud and another militant.

"It was a spectacular job. They were very brave boys who killed her," Mehsud said, according to the transcript.

Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said Sharif — also a former prime minister and now the most prominent opposition leader in Pakistan — was among several politicians under threat of militant attack.

He named others as Fazlur Rehman, the leader of an Islamist opposition party; former Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, a close ally of President Pervez Musharraf; and former Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao, who narrowly escaped a suicide bombing last weekend that killed 56 people.

But many of Bhutto’s furious supporters blamed Musharraf’s government for the attack on the former prime minister, Musharraf’s most powerful opponent. They rampaged through several cities in violence that left at least 23 dead less than two weeks before crucial parliamentary elections.

The assassination plunged Pakistan into turmoil and badly damaged plans to restore democracy in this nuclear-armed nation, a key U.S. ally in the war on terror.

Hundreds of thousands of mourners on Friday thronged the mausoleum of Pakistan’s most famous political dynasty in an outpouring of emotion for Bhutto.

Cause of death
Authorities on Thursday said Bhutto died from bullet wounds fired by a young man who then blew himself up, killing 20 other people. A surgeon who treated her said Friday she died from the impact of shrapnel on her skull.

But later Friday, Cheema said all three shots missed her as she greeted supporters through the sunroof of her vehicle, which was bulletproof and bombproof.

He also denied that shrapnel caused her death, saying Bhutto was killed when she tried to duck back into the vehicle, and the shock waves from the blast knocked her head into a lever attached to the sunroof, fracturing her skull.

At a news conference, Cheema played a videotape of the attack showing Bhutto waving, smiling and chatting with supporters from the sunroof as her car sat unmoving on the street outside a campaign rally. Three gunshots rang out, the camera appeared to fall, and the tape ended.

Bhutto was slain while campaigning for the crucial Jan. 8 parliamentary elections in which she hoped to return as prime minister of the nuclear-armed country, a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism. Upon her return from exile in October, she survived an assassination attempt. She had repeatedly complained that the government did not give her adequate security.

Mehsud blamed for Oct. 18 attack
Cheema blamed Mehsud, described him as an "al-Qaida leader" and said he was also behind the Oct. 18 bombing against Bhutto's homecoming parade through Karachi that killed more than 140 people.

Mehsud is a commander of pro-Taliban forces in the lawless Pakistani tribal region South Waziristan, where al-Qaida fighters are also active. His forces often attack Pakistani security forces.

This fall, he was quoted in a Pakistani newspaper as saying that he would welcome Bhutto's return from exile with suicide bombers. Mehsud later denied that in statements to local television and newspaper reporters.

Cheema said Mehsud was "behind most of the recent terrorist attacks that have taken place in Pakistan."

He said Pakistani security forces would hunt down those responsible for Bhutto's death.

On Friday, Bhutto’s supporters ransacked banks, waged shootouts with police and burned trains and stations in a spasm of violence less than two weeks before parliamentary elections.

Soldiers patrolled the streets of the southern cities of Hyderabad and Karachi, witnesses said. At least 23 people were killed in unrest, said Ghulam Mohammed Mohtaram, home secretary for Sindh province.

Prime Minister Mohammedmian Soomro said the government had no immediate plans to postpone Jan. 8 parliamentary elections, despite the growing chaos and a top opposition leader’s decision to boycott the poll.

“Right now the elections stand where they were,” he told a news conference. “We will consult all the political parties to take any decision about it.”

But Sharif, deposed by Musharraf in the 1999 coup, said his party would boycott the elections and blamed Musharraf for the instability.

Mourners at Bhutto's grave site in the town of Garhi Khuda Bakhsh had the same reaction.

The death of the 54-year-old Bhutto left her party without a clear successor. Her husband, who was freed in December 2004 after eight years in detention on graft charges, is one contender, although he lacks the cachet of a blood relative.

“I don’t know what will happen to the country now,” said mourner Nazakat Soomro, 32.

Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, wept as he accompanied her coffin, draped with the green, red and black tricolor of her Pakistan People's Party, on the 4-mile procession to the tomb.

Zardari then prayed there with the couple’s three children, son Bilawal, 19, and daughters Bakhtawar, 17 and Aseefa, 14.

Many crammed inside the Bhutto family mausoleum and threw rose petals on the coffin. Women beat their heads and chests in grief.

“As long as the moon and sun are alive, so is the name of Bhutto,” they chanted.

An Islamic cleric led mourners in prayers and Bhutto’s son and her husband helped lower the coffin beside the grave of her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, also a popular former prime minister who met a violent death.

Thousands riot
In related violence, a mob in Karachi looted at least three banks and set them on fire, and engaged in a shootout with police that left three officers wounded, police said.

About 7,000 people in the central city of Multan ransacked seven banks and a gas station and threw stones at police, who responded with tear gas. In the capital, Islamabad, about 100 protesters burned tires in a commercial district.

Paramilitary rangers were given the authority to use live fire against rioters in southern Pakistan, said Maj. Asad Ali, the rangers’ spokesman.

“We have orders to shoot on sight,” he said.

Earlier, mobs burned 10 railway stations and several trains across Bhutto’s Sindh province, forcing the suspension of all train service between the city of Karachi and the eastern Punjab province, said Mir Mohammed Khaskheli, a senior railroad official.

The rioters uprooted one section of the track leading to India, he said.

About 4,000 Bhutto supporters rallied in the northwestern city of Peshawar and several hundred ransacked the empty office of the main pro-Musharraf party, burning furniture and stationery.

Protesters shouted “Musharraf dog” and “Bhutto was alive yesterday, Bhutto is alive today.” Dozens of police in riot gear followed the protesters but did not intervene.