Masses Mourn Bhutto as Unrest Spreads
Saturday, December 29, 2007
LARKANA, Pakistan, Dec. 28 -- Waving colorful party flags and venting rage at the government, tens of thousands of followers of Benazir Bhutto gave her a boisterous farewell at her funeral Friday. A day after the former prime minister's assassination, unrest spread to many parts of the country, and the government blamed the killing on an Islamic extremist linked to al-Qaeda.
With a minimum of formal ritual, Bhutto's coffin was lowered into a grave dug in the floor of the Bhutto family's marble-domed mausoleum. Mourners crowded close to the coffin, which was interred quickly, in line with Islamic custom. A few feet away stood the elaborate memorial of her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, another former prime minister.
Elsewhere, particularly in Bhutto's home province of Sindh, violence raged for a second day. Pro-Bhutto demonstrators torched a train, banks, a prison and police checkpoints. Major roads were blocked with burning tires, and shops were shuttered. More than a dozen people were killed in the unrest, which included running gun battles between rioters and police.
While Bhutto's supporters continued to blame the government -- especially allies of President Pervez Musharraf -- for her killing, security officials said Friday they had found evidence that Islamic extremists from al-Qaeda and the Taliban had organized the fatal attack.
An Interior Ministry spokesman, Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, said at a news conference that security personnel had intercepted a conversation in which Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud "congratulated his people for carrying out this cowardly act."
According to a transcript the government released, Mehsud is told by another party to the conversation, "They were our men there," and he remarks: "It was a spectacular job. They were very brave boys who killed her."
Mehsud, a leading Taliban commander in the tribal area of South Waziristan, is widely believed to have contacts with al-Qaeda. He has not asserted responsibility for the attack and had taken the unusual step of denying an earlier government claim that he was targeting Bhutto.
U.S. intelligence officials expressed increasing confidence that the attack had been carried out by insurgents with ties to al-Qaeda, although they cautioned that there was no definitive proof. They called Mehsud a "plausible" suspect but declined to comment on whether intercepted communications linked him to Bhutto's slaying.
The Bush administration had helped engineer Bhutto's return from exile in October in hopes her presence would help end months of instability in Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the war against Islamic extremists. Bhutto left no clear successor as head of her Pakistan People's Party, and fear mounted in its ranks Friday that the group would splinter.
Speculation continued that Jan. 8 parliamentary elections in which the party is running would be canceled, but officials in the capital, Islamabad, reiterated Friday that the vote would proceed as planned.
New debate began over the circumstances of Bhutto's assassination as she left a political rally. Cheema, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said at his news conference that Bhutto had not been killed by bullets or shrapnel, as initially reported, but had hit her head on a sunroof lever as a bomb blast rocked her vehicle and she ducked for cover from the attack.
"The lever struck near her right ear and fractured her skull," Cheema said. "There was no bullet or metal shrapnel found in the injury."