By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 19, 2007
KARACHI, Pakistan, Oct. 19 -- Two powerful bombs detonated next to a truck carrying former prime minister Benazir Bhutto late Thursday, just hours after she returned from exile to a triumphal homecoming. More than 120 people were killed and hundreds were wounded in one of Pakistan's worst episodes of political violence.
Bhutto, who arrived in this coastal city Thursday afternoon after eight years away, appeared shaken but unhurt following the blasts. Security officials said the explosions had been set off within several yards of her vehicle as it inched through the streets, with Bhutto being cheered by thousands of supporters. Only minutes before, she had descended from the roof of the vehicle and into an internal compartment.
The former prime minister was returning in hopes of winning back her old job and bringing stability to a political system that has been in turmoil in recent months under the military-led government of President Pervez Musharraf. The bombings -- within 30 seconds of each other -- threatened to plunge Pakistan into deeper tumult.
Bhutto has long been targeted by Islamic extremists for her secular views, and Taliban militants had publicly threatened to greet her return with suicide bombings. Despite the threats, she insisted on coming home as scheduled. She made that point again Thursday on her flight from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, saying she had not had time to be afraid during the frantic preparations for what was to be a national tour.
Her party had been pushing the government to intensify security, and after the bombings, some supporters laid blame on security officials. Musharraf denounced the attack as "a conspiracy against democracy."
The blasts came as Bhutto's convoy was en route from the airport to a planned public meeting at the tomb of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder. Pakistani television, which captured one of the explosions on videotape, showed a sudden burst of light and a tower of flame that sent projectiles flying in every direction. Crowds scattered for cover.
Body parts were strewn for hundreds of yards around, and men walked away from the scene covered head to toe in blood. Dozens of ambulances, sirens wailing, ferried the injured and the dead to hospitals. Survivors sat by the side of the road, weeping. The sweet smell of rose petals -- revelers had tossed them into the air to welcome Bhutto -- mingled with the heavy scent of death.
After the explosions, Bhutto's supporters reported hearing gunshots, and there were three indentations in the glass screen of her truck that appeared to have been caused by bullets.
Raja Mubasher, a party activist, said the attack came as members of the crowd were shouting slogans of celebration. One minute, he said, "people were jubilant. They were happy. Our leader had come back after eight years." The next, he said, "their legs were broken. Their heads were broken. Their hands were broken." In an instant, he said, the ground was littered with more than 100 bodies.
Angry members of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party said the government had been lax in providing protection, with some even suggesting that elements of the government had been complicit. "They don't want the Bhutto family to be successful here," said Abdul Habib Memon, a member of Bhutto's party.
Karachi's police chief, Farooqi Ahmed, denied that his forces were anything less than vigilant and noted that among the dead were a large number of police officers. Ahmed also said Bhutto would have "definitely" been killed had it not been for extra security efforts provided by the government, including a bullet- and shock-resistant container that Bhutto was riding in, and jamming devices designed to keep blasts from detonating near her vehicle. Bhutto was evacuated quickly after the attack.
In recent days, local government officials had urged Bhutto's party to curtail its plans for a lengthy tour of Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, saying her convoy would be difficult to secure over a long time period.
Police said they did not know for sure what had caused the explosions, though it appeared that two small, parked cars along the route had been detonated.
In Washington, the White House condemned the bombings and mourned the loss of innocent life.
"Extremists will not be allowed to stop Pakistanis from selecting their representatives through an open and democratic process," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
Before the attack, hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis had turned out for a rollicking, exuberant welcome that began early Thursday afternoon and was expected to continue through the night.
Pakistan People's Party officials said 3 million people had shown up to welcome Bhutto. Pakistani news stations estimated the crowd at 1.5 million.
At times during the day, Karachi -- a city with a reputation for disorder -- looked like one giant street festival. Supporters had been jubilantly waving the party's red, black and green flags, and were singing and dancing to its music. The container carrying Bhutto was colorfully decorated, emblazoned with a portrait of her, as well as the slogan "Long Live Bhutto."
The 10-mile route that Bhutto was to travel from the airport to the tomb of Pakistan's founder normally takes 15 minutes to drive. But Bhutto's truck had to inch along amid a sea of people who surged toward her at every turn. In many places, the crowds lining the route were 20 or 25 people deep.
When the attack occurred, nine hours into the drive, she and the dozens of vehicles accompanying her were only halfway to the tomb.
Bhutto's family history is etched with tragedy. Her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was Pakistan's prime minister until 1977, when he was ousted by his army chief, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. Two years later, the former prime minister was hanged. Since then, Benazir Bhutto's two brothers have died in mysterious circumstances.
Bhutto's return had required her to defy assassination threats and to disregard a suggestion from Musharraf that she delay her homecoming until after the Supreme Court settles a challenge to his election to a new term.
She had gone into exile in 1999 to avoid corruption charges that she called politically motivated. Early this month, Musharraf quashed the charges under a deal in which Bhutto kept her supporters from pressing for his ouster.
Bhutto arrived at the Karachi airport Thursday afternoon from Dubai, where she had spent much of her exile, along with hundreds of supporters. As she stepped, teary-eyed, onto the tarmac at 2:16 p.m., she turned her head to the sky and said: "It's great to be back home. It is a dream come true."
Special correspondent Shahzad Khurram in Karachi and staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.