By William Branigin and Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 27, 2007 3:55 PM
The assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto drew widespread international condemnation today, with governments and political leaders denouncing it as a blow to democratic aspirations and calling for renewed efforts against extremists.
"The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan's democracy," President Bush said in a brief statement at his Crawford, Tex., ranch. He extended condolences to Bhutto's family, the families of other victims and the Pakistani people, and urged Pakistanis to keep working for democracy.
"Those who committed this crime must be brought to justice," Bush said. "Mrs. Bhutto served her nation twice as prime minister, and she knew that her return to Pakistan earlier this year put her life at risk. Yet she refused to allow assassins to dictate the course of her country."
Bush said the United States stands "with the people of Pakistan in their struggle against the forces of terror and extremism," and he urged Pakistanis "to honor Benazir Bhutto's memory by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life."
He walked away without taking questions from reporters after delivering his somber statement.
Briefing reporters later in Crawford, White House spokesman Scott M. Stanzel said Bush had a "brief" telephone conversation this afternoon with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. No other details were immediately provided.
Earlier, Stanzel declined to say whether the White House supports postponing Pakistan's parliamentary elections, scheduled for Jan. 8. Bhutto had been campaigning for her Pakistan Peoples Party in the elections when she was killed.
"That is up to the Pakistanis," Stanzelsaid of any postponement. "Free and fair elections are an integral part of a democratic society, and we're in the opening hours of this tragedy, this assassination."
But a State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, said the elections should go forward without delay so as not to reward Bhutto's killers.
"I don't think it would do any justice to her memory to have an election postponed or canceled simply as a result of this tragic incident," Casey told reporters. "The only people that win through such a course of action are the people who perpetrated this attack."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has spoken with Bhutto's husband to offer the nation's condolences, Stanzel said.
Asked whether Bush believes that Musharraf did his utmost to protect Bhutto, the spokesman said Bhutto "returned to Pakistan knowing the risk that she faced." Nor would he answer directly when asked if Bush would urge the Pakistani president not to impose martial law.
"We would urge calm," Stanzel said. "After an assassination like this of a political leader, there is a risk of people turning to violence to express their anger. And we would urge calm and hope that all Pakistanis would mourn her death, celebrate her life and unite together in opposition to the types of extremists that are trying to stop the march of democracy."
Stanzel said he had no information on any claim of responsibility by al-Qaeda. "But certainly whoever perpetrated this attack is an enemy of democracy, and has used a tactic which al-Qaeda is very familiar with, and that is suicide bombing and the taking of innocent life to try to disrupt a democratic process," he said.
In New York, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting and unanimously condemned the assassination "in the strongest terms." In a statement drafted by Italy, the 15-member council also urged Bhutto's followers to show restraint, called terrorism "one of the most serious threats to international peace and security" and said that "any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable."
Bhutto, 54, died after being shot in the neck and chest by a suicide bomber, who then detonated his explosives. At least 20 other people were also killed in the attack in Rawalpindi. It occurred as Bhutto was leaving a political rally ahead of the Pakistani elections.
The attack "demonstrates that there are still those in Pakistan who want to subvert reconciliation and efforts to advance democracy," State Department spokesman Casey said.
Democratic and Republican presidential candidates and lawmakers also denounced the killing in a flurry of statements, expressing concern for stability in a nation that possesses nuclear weapons and whose unruly tribal territory hosts a resurgent al-Qaeda.
In London, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in a televised statement that Bhutto "risked everything in her attempt to win democracy in Pakistan, and she has been assassinated by cowards afraid of democracy."
Bhutto "may have been killed by terrorists, but the terrorists must not be allowed to kill democracy in Pakistan," Brown said. "This atrocity strengthens our resolve that terrorists will not win there, here or anywhere in the world."
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Bhutto "showed in her words and actions a deep commitment to her country." Bhutto"knew the risks of her return to campaign but was convinced that her country needed her," he said. "This is a time for restraint but also unity."
In India, which fought three wars against Pakistan and has had tense relations with its neighbor for decades, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that "the subcontinent has lost an outstanding leader who worked for democracy and reconciliation in her country."
He called the assassination "a reminder of the common dangers that our region faces from cowardly acts of terrorism and of the need to eradicate this dangerous threat."
"Mrs. Bhutto was a brave and outstanding woman leader of the subcontinent," Indian External Affairs Minister Shri Pranab Mukherjee said in a live television statement. "That she should fall to a barbarous terrorist attack is particularly tragic, and should strengthen our resolve to fight this scourge."
Her "contributions to democracy, to the improvement of India-Pakistan relations, and to the restoration of normalcy within Pakistan will be an inspiration," Mukherjee said.
Indian talk shows were filled today with interviews with people who had worked with Bhutto and knew her personally. Indian political analysts said that the lack of rule of law in Pakistan would have lasting impact throughout South Asia.
"There will be bloggers and people in India who say, well, we have a democracy and Pakistan, our old rival, doesn't," said Ramachandra Guha, a historian and expert on India-Pakistan relations. "But if there is fire in your neighbor's house, it's not good news for you, and you want to put out that fire very quickly. They eat the same food as us, they play the same sports, they have the same culture. The situation in Pakistan will be very delicate. If things go wrong for them, it's not going to go right for us."
Karan Thapar, an Indian television personality who was close friends with Bhutto when they were attending university in England more than 30 years ago, said: "She was not a cynic. She was idealistic. We spoke four days ago and I said to her, 'Don't take any unnecessary risks.' She laughed and said, 'You are not getting rid of me that soon. I'm going to be around for a long time.' "
In a letter to Musharraf, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the assassination an "odious act" and said Bhutto had paid "with her life her commitment to the service of her fellow citizens and to Pakistan's political life." He urged Pakistan to hold its elections as scheduled on Jan. 8.
Italian Premier Romano Prodi said he was filled with grief and called Bhutto "a woman who chose to fight her battle until the end with a single weapon -- the one of dialogue and political debate," the Associated Press reported.
"The difficult path toward peace and democracy in that region must not be stopped, and Bhutto's sacrifice will serve as the strongest example for those who do not surrender to terrorism," Prodi said.
In Moscow, Anatoly Safonov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's envoy on international cooperation against terrorism, expressed fears that the killing could lead to further violence.
"The already unstable situation in Pakistan will be further exacerbated by this powerful factor," the Interfax news agency quoted Safonov as saying.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said the "bestial" murder filled him with disgust. "I feel a strong worry for the consequences this will have for Pakistan," he said.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement that he was "shocked and outraged" by the assassination, which "represents an assault on stability in Pakistan and its democratic processes."
Ban added: "I strongly condemn this heinous crime and call for the perpetrators to be brought to justice as soon as possible." He also urged Pakistanis to exhibit "calm and restraint" and to "work together for peace and national unity."
U.S. congressional leaders, meanwhile, recalled meetings with Bhutto and stressed a need for Pakistan to step back from a potential maelstrom of violence.
"It is important . . . that political leaders show a commitment to resolve but also restraint," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "Extremists must be brought to justice, but extremism must not undermine commitment to the rule of law, to human rights and to democracy."
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, "This is a critical moment for Pakistan, for the region and for the community of nations as we encourage democracy and stability in Pakistan." He expressed support for pressing ahead with the Jan. 8 elections "in honor of Benazir Bhutto's memory."
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) called the murder of Bhutto "a lightning bolt wake-up call for anyone who had taken their eye off of the turmoil in Pakistan."
"Her loss underscores the fragility of the situation in Pakistan and the perils of a volatile mix of unrest, tension, radicalism and nuclear weapons," Kerry said. "Her killing embodies everyone's worst possible fears and reinforces how tenuous the circumstances in Pakistan really are." He said the United States and its allies should focus urgently on "developing a Pakistan strategy that will crush extremists and provide freedom, peace, and security."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the assassination "a tragic setback for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan." Bhutto's "courageous return to Pakistan this year gave hope to all those concerned by efforts to extinguish rule of law there," she said.
The United States now "must stand with the Pakistani people in their struggle for democracy and continue to press the Musharraf government to ensure that the coming election is free and fair," Pelosi said.
Gardner reported from Crawford, Tex. Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations and correspondent Emily Wax in New Delhi also contributed to this report.