Bhutto husband’s rally draws thousands

/ Source: The Associated Press

Tens of thousands of Benazir Bhutto supporters gathered in southern Pakistan on Saturday to hear her widowed husband address the first major campaign rally held by the opposition leader's party since her assassination.

Striving to fill the void left by the former prime minister, Asif Ali Zardari was expected to urge followers of her Pakistan People's Party to push for victory in Feb. 18 parliamentary elections.

The election is meant to restore democracy after years of military rule in Pakistan, and the PPP is widely expected to benefit from a sympathy vote over the liberal-minded leader's Dec. 27 killing in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

The rally comes a day after Scotland Yard released its findings that a bomb, not a bullet, killed Bhutto as she left an election rally. That supported the conclusion of President Pervez Musharraf's government, which has blamed the Bhutto killing on a Taliban militant commander. But it is still disputed by Bhutto's party.

Party faithful mobilized at towns along the 70-mile route from Karachi and traveled to the historic town of Thatta for the rally. Police said about 2,000 officers were deployed to secure the sports stadium where Zardari would make his speech later Saturday.

‘We will avenge the blood of Benazir’
More than 30,000 people gathered inside and tens of thousands more were disembarking off hundreds of buses and trucks festooned with PPP flags that crammed the road near the stadium. The attendance surpassed that of any rally in the election campaign so far.

"We will avenge the blood of Benazir. We don't have bombs. We are not terrorists, but we have political power and we will capitalize on this political power to avenge the death of Benazir," said Haji Jaffar, 75, a retired teacher and People's Party member.

"The passion and love for the PPP has increased after Benazir's assassination. The people who were not with us yesterday are with us now," he said.

Still, it remains to be seen if Zardari can unite the party and dispel public doubts over his track record. He was labeled "Mr. 10 Percent" over his alleged pilfering of state funds and demands for kickbacks during Bhutto's two administrations in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Pir Bakhsh, a 24-year old laborer, said that Zardari's reputation was not good but that love for Benazir "compels us to attend this rally."

A vast portrait of Bhutto, alongside a picture of her 19-year old son Bilawal, dominated the backdrop of the stage where Zardari would speak. Bilawal, currently studying at Oxford University, was appointed party chairman after her death, but Zardari is the de facto leader.

Three-tier security searches
Police and party volunteers conducted a three-tier search of people who passed through scanners and were then body-searched before entering the stadium at Thatta, which in centuries past was a regional capital dominating the Indus River delta and is now a World Heritage site.

Bhutto-related rallies have in the past been scenes of bloodshed, not least her own. She narrowly escaped a suicide attack on her homecoming parade in Karachi in October that killed more than 140 people.

The British investigators looking into her Dec. 27 killing concluded that she suffered a fatal head injury when the force of a blast from a suicide bomber hurled her against a lever on the roof of her armored vehicle. Bhutto's party, however, has insisted that she was shot during that attack, which also killed about 20 others.

Despite the Bhutto party's support base among Pakistan's rural poor, particularly in her native Sindh province where Thatta is located, fear over rising militant violence and apathy over the nation's elitist politics has dampened public enthusiasm for the election.

The result remains hard to call because of an absence of reliable opinion polls and opposition allegations the vote will be rigged.