Scotland Yard said in a report released Friday that Pakistan’s opposition leader Benazir Bhutto died as a result of a suicide bomb blast, not a gunshot — findings that support the Pakistani government’s version of the events.
Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party immediately rejected the British conclusion and repeated its demand for a U.N. investigation.
The party says Bhutto was shot and suspects a government cover-up because Bhutto had accused political allies of President Pervez Musharraf of plotting to kill her.
The British probe also found that a single attacker both fired the shots at Bhutto and detonated the blast by blowing himself up moments later.
Assassination sparked unrest
The death of the former prime minister sparked violent unrest across the country and forced a six-week delay in parliamentary elections, now set for Feb. 18. The continuing dispute over exactly how she died will do little to ease Pakistan’s political turmoil.
Musharraf has rejected the call for a U.N. probe but invited Scotland Yard to help establish the cause of death. After a two-and-a-half week investigation, their findings were released Friday in a summarized report issued by the British High Commission in Islamabad.
British Home Office pathologist Dr. Nathaniel Cary was quoted in a report as saying that “the only tenable cause” for Bhutto’s fatal head injury was the impact of the blast that went off as she waved to supporters from the hatch of her vehicle after an election rally.
“In my opinion Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto died as a result of a severe head injury sustained as a consequence of the bomb-blast and due to head impact somewhere in the escape hatch of the vehicle,” Cary said in the report.
Pakistan’s government announced a similar conclusion shortly after Bhutto’s killing, which took place in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. It says the attack was orchestrated by a top Taliban militant commander with links to al-Qaida, Baitullah Mehsud.
Widespread public skepticism
There was widespread public skepticism over the government’s conclusion as the bomb site was hosed down within hours of the attack and the findings were announced with haste.
“We disagree with the finding on the cause of the death,” said Sherry Rehman, spokeswoman for the Pakistan Peoples Party, who escorted Bhutto to hospital after the Dec. 27 attack. “She died from a bullet injury. This was and is our position.”
The Scotland Yard report said that despite the lack of a detailed search of the crime scene or autopsy of Bhutto’s body “the evidence that is available is sufficient for reliable conclusions to be drawn.” Investigators had relied considerably on X-rays and detailed examination of video footage of the attack, it said.
The report concluded that there had been a lone attacker, though earlier there had been suggestions that a separate bomber had lurked behind the gunman.
“In essence, all the evidence indicates that one suspect has fired the shots before detonating an improvised explosive device,” the report said.
Before the findings were officially released, Rehman called into question Scotalnd Yard’s ability to fully investigate the killing.
“Their terms of reference were limited,” Rehman said of the British. “They were working under the Pakistani police. Their investigation was limited only to finding the cause of her death.”
Pakistani police agree with U.K. findings
Police officer Chaudhry Abdul Majid who is heading Pakistan’s own investigation, said they agreed with British findings. He said that a gun was fired but the bullets did not hit Bhutto.
British experts had concluded that the injury on the right side of Bhutto’s head was not a bullet wound but appeared “entirely consistent with her head impacting upon the lip of the escape hatch” of her SUV, the report said.
It said media footage — broadcast extensively on Pakistani and international TV — showed Bhutto moving forward and to the right, and disappearing from view less than a second before the blast.
“Whilst her exact head position at the time of the detonation can never be ascertained, the overwhelming conclusion must be that she did not succeed in getting her head entirely below the lip of the escape hatch when the explosion occurred,” it said.
Pakistani police said they were also close to finalizing their investigation into who carried out the attack — a field of inquiry beyond the remit of the Scotland Yard team.
Majid confirmed that police had arrested two “important” suspects in Rawalpindi on Thursday, identified only as Husnain Gul and Rafaqat. He said they appeared to have facilitated the suicide bomber.
He said they were arrested on information from a 15-year old boy arrested last month in northwestern Pakistan who told police he was among a five-man suicide squad charged with assassinating Bhutto.