Bhutto Assassination Sparks Chaos
Former Premier, Hit by Gunfire After Rally, Was a Key to Pakistan's Struggle for Democracy
Friday, December 28, 2007
RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, Dec. 27 -- Benazir Bhutto, for decades the central figure in a tortured struggle to bring democratic rule to Pakistan, was assassinated Thursday afternoon as she waved to supporters after a political rally, plunging the country into new turmoil just days before scheduled elections.
The death of the former prime minister creates a massive political void in this nuclear-armed nation of 165 million people and opens the door to potentially greater violence in a year of almost nonstop tumult here. It leaves in tatters Washington's strategy of fighting extremism by pairing Bhutto with President Pervez Musharraf, a close U.S. ally who has been under siege in the streets for months.
Around the world Thursday, government leaders pleaded with Bhutto's countrymen to remain calm. In Texas, President Bush urged the Pakistani people "to honor Benazir Bhutto's memory by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life."
There was no immediate assertion of responsibility for the killing. Musharraf, who addressed the nation on television, condemned the assassination and blamed Islamic extremists. He declared three days of national mourning. But Bhutto's supporters pinned responsibility on allies of Musharraf, the former chief of the army. Partisans of the slain leader rioted in cities and towns across the country, burning police cars, looting shops and firing guns.
Thursday night, grieving supporters carried Bhutto's body in a plain wooden coffin from the hospital where she had been declared dead. Her body was taken to an airport and was being flown to her family's ancestral home in the Larkana district of southern Pakistan for burial at an as-yet-unannounced time.
Musharraf was closeted with advisers late Thursday, debating strategy. It was unclear whether the Jan. 8 parliamentary elections for which Bhutto was campaigning when she was killed would proceed; at least one major party vowed to boycott the vote.
"If there's a lot more violence, then it's possible the whole democratic process will be derailed," political analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi said.
Other observers saw glimmers of conciliation. "This can turn into anarchy," said Talat Masood, a retired general and political analyst. "Or it can turn into something Benazir Bhutto could not achieve in life but may achieve in death. It could provide the momentum needed for a return to the rule of law and democracy. It could go either way."
Bhutto, 54, led one of Pakistan's most important political families. She had many fans but also persistent critics who accused her of corruption and derided her position in her party: chairperson for life.
She narrowly survived a similar assassination attempt just two months ago, when attackers killed more than 140 people in coordinated blasts targeting a homecoming procession shortly after she returned from eight years of exile. Since then, she had been campaigning across the country, hoping to win for a third time the job of prime minister, saying all the while that she knew she was likely to be attacked again.
Thursday's strike came at dusk, in a public park where another Pakistani prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated in 1951. A few miles away is the site of the prison, now demolished, where Bhutto's father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was confined. He was president from 1971 to 1973 and then prime minister until 1977, when he was hanged by the military-led government that deposed him.
Benazir Bhutto, wearing a white head scarf, addressed a rally in the park, then got into her bulletproof sport-utility vehicle. She was being driven out of the park when she asked that the vehicle's sunroof be opened so she could bid thousands of supporters farewell, according to witnesses and several aides, including one who had been sitting next to her.