The opposition Pakistan People's Party is set to hold a critical meeting Sunday in the wake of leader Benazir Bhutto's assassination to decide whether to still take part in parliamentary elections due Jan. 8.
The People's Party meeting, which will also hear a reading of Bhutto's last will and testament, comes amid growing controversy surrounding her death.
The government Saturday rejected foreign help in investigating Bhutto's assassination. The Islamic militant group blamed by officials for the attack that killed Bhutto denied any links to the killing, and Bhutto's aides accused the government of a cover-up.
A pullout by the Pakistan People's Party could destroy the credibility of next month's poll, already being boycotted by Pakistan's other main opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif.
Washington has pressured its ally, President Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a coup eight years ago, to push ahead with the election to promote stability in this nuclear armed nation.
A region on the edge
Mass unrest among her supporters has left at least 44 people dead and tens of millions of dollars of damage. Rioters have destroyed 176 banks, 34 gas stations, 72 train cars, 18 rail stations, and hundreds of cars and shops.
They have also wrecked nine election offices — along with the voter rolls and ballot boxes inside — hampered the printing of ballot slips and the training of poll workers, the election commission said. The commission has called an emergency meeting for Monday.
Musharraf has ordered security chiefs to take firm action to curb the unrest.
Meanwhile, the uncertainty over the circumstances of Bhutto's assassination has intensified since she died Thursday when a suicide attacker shot at her and then blew himself up as she waved to supporters from the sunroof of her armored vehicle outside a campaign rally.
Authorities initially said she died from bullet wounds, but subsequently Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said Bhutto was killed when the shockwaves from the suicide bomb smashed her head into the sunroof as she tried to duck back inside the vehicle.
Bhutto's spokeswoman Sherry Rehman said, "We saw a bullet wound in the back of her neck. What the government is saying is actually dangerous and nonsensical. They are pouring salt on our wounds."
Government blames Tehrik-i-Taliban
The government blamed the attack on Baitullah Mehsud, head of the Tehrik-i-Taliban, a newly formed coalition of Islamic militants along the Afghan border believed to be linked to al-Qaida and committed to waging holy war against the government.
But a spokesman for Mehsud, Maulana Mohammed Umer, said, "We strongly deny it. Baitullah Mehsud is not involved in the killing of Benazir Bhutto."
Cheema said Bhutto's party was free to exhume her body to conduct an autopsy, but rejected calls for an international investigation. An independent domestic judicial investigation should be completed within seven days of the appointment of its presiding judge, he said.
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday that an international probe was vital because there was "no reason to trust the Pakistani government," while others called for a U.N. investigation.
Nearly deserted streets
Army, police and paramilitary troops patrolled the nearly deserted streets of Bhutto's home city of Larkana, where rioting left shops at a jewelry market smoldering.
Sharif led a 47-member delegation of other opposition leaders to meet with Bhutto's family to express condolences, said Sadiq ul-Farooq, spokesman for Sharif's party.
Musharraf called Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, promising to make every effort to bring the attackers to justice, state-run Pakistan Television reported.
Desperate to quell the violence, the government sent troops into several cities. Soldiers patrolled several Karachi neighborhoods Saturday, and residents complained of shortages of food and gasoline.
Burned out vehicles littered the road from Larkana to Karachi, and hundreds of people tried to hitch rides along the route. Protesters burned tires, and markets were deserted.
Train service in parts of the south were suspended because "of the bad law and order situation," a rail official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The army positioned 20 battalions of troops for deployment across Sindh province if they were needed to stop the violence, according to a military statement.
Bhutto's death plunged the nation deep into turmoil less than two weeks before parliamentary elections.
While many grieving Pakistanis turned to violence, hundreds of thousands of others paid their last respects Friday to the popular opposition leader as she was laid to rest beside her father in her family's marble mausoleum.