By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 20, 2007
KARACHI, Pakistan, Oct. 19 -- Somber but defiant, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto said Friday that the massive attack that had missed her but killed 140 others on Thursday would not deter her from seeking public office, even though she continued to receive credible reports of plots against her.
"We are prepared to risk our lives and we are prepared to risk our liberty, but we are not prepared to surrender our great nation to the militants," Bhutto told journalists who packed into her compound in this coastal city. She vowed to press ahead with her campaign to return to the prime ministership and restore democratic, civilian rule to Pakistan.
In her first public comments since her narrow escape Thursday night, Bhutto said she had previously passed along information to the government warning that suicide squads would be hunting her as she returned to Pakistan after eight years in exile. She also said that she had sent the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a letter on Tuesday in which she named three people who she said are plotting to kill her.
"I know in my heart who my enemies are," Bhutto said. She declined to publicly name the three. But she said she has been told specifically of a new plot by would-be assassins to disguise themselves as police officers and try to kill her in Karachi or in her home town of Larkana.
Bhutto has been targeted in the past by Islamic extremist groups because of her secular attitudes and ties to the West. But she has also said retired and active-duty members of the military are conspiring against her. Her party has long opposed the military's role in government.
Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan denied that anyone from the military was involved in the attack and said that the strike showed "all the hallmarks" of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Khan said that the government had warned Bhutto about the threats on her life, asking her to delay her homecoming, and that she recklessly chose not only to return but to take part in a snail's-pace procession through Karachi that left her vulnerable.
"She might have underestimated the threat that was being posed," Khan said.
Musharraf has ordered officials to conduct an inquiry into the attack within 48 hours and report to him with the names of the organizers.
No one has asserted responsibility for the attack. The Taliban commander who has been blamed by some government officials, Baitullah Mehsud, denied Friday that he was involved -- an unusual move by a member of an insurgent group that is usually quick to assert responsibility for terrorist strikes.
Thursday's attack was one of the most devastating in Pakistan's history. It came at the end of an otherwise joyous day for Bhutto and her supporters. She had flown back to Pakistan from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in the early afternoon and was greeted by hundreds of thousands of well-wishers.
Her procession was interrupted by what Bhutto said Friday was at first thought to have been a loud firecracker. It turned out it was a grenade or the first of two suicide attacks, and it went off directly outside Bhutto's vehicle.
Less than a minute later, there was another explosion, more intense than the first, and by then there was no doubt an attack was underway. Soon after, an unknown gunman fired at the vehicle, she said.
Bhutto said all of the streetlights were out, making it difficult for security forces to scan the crowd. "We couldn't see," she said. "We were moving in the darkness." She said the government should investigate who shut off the lights.
But she did not blame the government for what happened, instead praising the work of the police officers who guarded her convoy, many of whom were killed. Bhutto also lauded the work of her own security forces. Even before the attacks, she said, they had detained one man with a pistol and another with a suicide belt.
On Friday, Bhutto wore a black armband and spoke of those who had died. But she also expressed a resolve to carry on. "This was a dastardly and cowardly attack," she said, adding that it was carried out by an extremist minority that does not represent the views of most Pakistanis.
"We believe democracy alone can save Pakistan from disintegration and a militant takeover," she said.
Bhutto and Musharraf have been in controversial negotiations that she says are aimed at restoring democratic rule to Pakistan, eight years after the general seized power in a military coup. If the negotiations succeed, Bhutto could become prime minister again after parliamentary elections in January.
Thursday's attack further clouds the upcoming campaign season, however. Insurgents are likely to target other political gatherings, and Khan said Friday the government would propose a ban on large political rallies in the nation's streets. Such events are a staple of politics in Pakistan.
"Freedom has its price," he said. "We have to make sure the lives and property of our citizens are safeguarded."
Thursday's attack took a heavy toll on the rank-and-file activists of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party -- many of whom are peasants or factory workers.
At the Karachi morgue Friday, hundreds of people streamed in looking for relatives. Many had been to half a dozen hospitals, hoping their loved ones had merely been injured.
Once at the morgue, they confronted a grim task: They had to inspect body after body in a room where, by late afternoon, the stench had become overpowering.
"The bodies were unrecognizable," said Ghulam Ahmad, who searched unsuccessfully for his cousin. "The faces were gone. The stomachs were open. Some were without the lower part. Some were without the upper part."
When Farooq Awan found his cousin's body, it was hard to tell he had even been injured. There was just a single, dime-size hole in the back of 28-year-old Chaudhry Shahid's head, forged by a piece of high-velocity shrapnel. "He was a very good guy," Awan said. "He was part of Benazir's security. He gave his life for her."
There was not much time to linger on the thought. Awan had found his cousin. But another quest awaited: "We are still searching for my brother."