Bhutto's Return to Pakistan Marred by Bombing

A bombing attack against Pakistan's former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her supporters draws worldwide condemnation. A suicide bomber attacked her convoy within hours of her triumphant return to Karachi as it was moving through downtown.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

News headlines from around the world today include condemnation of a bombing in Pakistan. It was an attack against former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her supporters. Within hours after her return to Karachi, a suicide bomber attacked the Bhutto convoy as it was moving through downtown.

(Soundbite of crowd)

AMOS: More than 130 people were killed, hundreds more wounded. Bhutto herself was unhurt. It was among the deadliest attacks in Pakistan's turbulent history. The former prime minister is now calling for an inquiry.

NPR's Philip Reeves is covering the story and he joins us now from Karachi.

Good morning.

PHILIP REEVES: Good morning.

AMOS: So what is Benazir Bhutto saying about this attack?

REEVES: Well, her press conference is still going on, but she has made some very interesting remarks. One of which is that if the street lights have been on in the area where her truck was attacked, she believes that her guards would have spotted the suicide bombers. She's saying she's not blaming the government at this stage for this lapse, but they were very concerned at the time and tried in fact to get in touch with Pakistan's national security advisor to alert him that the lights were off.

And they also - she says officials sent text to the media to tell them that they were worried about the security situation. But their mobile phones weren't working in the truck because there was a jammer on at the time. So she says he guards started scanning the crowd with flood lights to see if they could see anybody out there who was planning to attack them. It's important to point out also that Benazir Bhutto said categorically, she knew there would be an attack against them yesterday.

She was so confident of this that she tried to pursued the Pakistan People's Party senior officials who were on that truck with her not to travel with her because she was worried that if they were attacked that they would be killed along with her, wiping out the high command, if you like, of the party.

AMOS: In the reports that we're reading and what you've reported so far we have a grenade and then a suicide bomber. The lights were off. Does she have any theories as to why that might have happened?

REEVES: No. She's calling for an inquiry to why the lights were off. But it's not just a grenade and a suicide bomber, there were also shots fired, she says, towards her truck. She said they were fired either immediately before the suicide bombing to try to stop the truck, although it must be said the truck was generally moving terribly slowly during its journey through Karachi. But she said it was either before the suicide bombing stopped the truck or after to try to kill people who were on it.

AMOS: And, Phil, how close did it come to killing Bhutto herself?

REEVES: It came quite close in the sense that it was not far away from her truck. She said she saw a huge orange glow. She was - she had been, against police advice, on the roof of the truck, greeting the crowd. But she'd gone inside to rest. And she said from in there, she first of all heard a bang, which was the grenade, I think, which she thought was initially a firecracker. And then they heard the larger bomb and saw a huge orange glow and bodies everywhere.

AMOS: What do you think the political fallout of this attack is going be? Is there any way to tell that now?

REEVES: Well, already the recriminations are flying. A security official - provincial security official here has accused Bhutto's people of failing to take security warning seriously enough. And that maybe damaging. Certainly, Bhutto's critics will probably allege that she shouldn't have made that journey yesterday.

On the other hand, she is criticized by many people in Pakistan, for forging an alliance with General Pervez Musharraf, the military ruler here. And she (unintelligible) that by saying that this alliance is intended to form a partnership in the battle against rising Islamist extremism in Pakistan. And, of course, being attacked in this violent way by a bomber who is widely assumed to be an Islamist extremist will fortify that case.

AMOS: Thank you very much.

NPR's Philip Reeves in Karachi where a suicide bombing has killed more than 130 people.

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Bhutto Remains Resolute Despite Attacks

Mourners attend a funeral for two policemen killed in attacks in Karachi, Pakistan. i i

Mourners on Friday take part in a funeral ceremony for two policemen killed in a suicide attack on former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in Karachi, Pakistan. Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty hide caption

itoggle caption Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty
Mourners attend a funeral for two policemen killed in attacks in Karachi, Pakistan.

Mourners on Friday take part in a funeral ceremony for two policemen killed in a suicide attack on former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in Karachi, Pakistan.

Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty
Analysis: Bhutto's Political Prospects

The massive bombings in Karachi shattered what had been a triumphant homecoming for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, but they are unlikely to stop her return to the spotlight of Pakistani politics. Read an analysis.

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto vowed Friday to carry on with her plans for a democratic Pakistan, despite a midnight attack that left more than 100 people dead.

One of Pakistan's top security officials blamed Islamic extremists for two bombings that killed up to 136 during Bhutto's homecoming procession late Thursday.

"We believe democracy alone can save Pakistan from disintegration and a militant takeover," Bhutto told a news conference. "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."

Interior Minister Ghulam Muhammad Mohtarem said the attack bore the hallmarks of militants allied with pro-Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud and al-Qaida.

Local media reports this month quoted Mehsud as vowing to meet Bhutto's return to Pakistan with suicide attacks. An associate of Mehsud, however, denied Taliban involvement

Bhutto Received Warning

Bhutto said there were two attackers in the deadly bombing and that her security guards found a third man armed with a pistol and another with a suicide vest. Ahead of her arrival, she said, she was warned suicide squads were dispatched to kill her.

"There was one suicide squad from the Taliban elements, one suicide squad from al-Qaida, one suicide squad from Pakistani Taliban and a fourth — a group — I believe from Karachi," she said.

Bhutto said her guards prevented more carnage.

"They stood their ground and they stood all around the truck, and they refused to let the suicide bomber — the second suicide bomber — get near the truck," she said.

Bhutto blamed militants for the attack, which drew international condemnation.

Bhutto's convoy moved for 10 hours toward the center of Karachi with supporters thronging her armored truck when a small explosion erupted near the front of the vehicle. That was quickly followed by a larger blast that destroyed two police vans escorting the procession.

Bhutto did not blame the government, but said it was suspicious that streetlights failed after sunset Thursday when her convoy was inching its way through the streets of Karachi. She said attempts to reach the national security adviser to have the lights restored were unsuccessful — phone lines were also apparently down.

"I'm not accusing the government, but certain individuals who abuse their positions and powers," she said. "We were scanning the crowd with the floodlights, but it was difficult to scan the crowds because there was so much darkness."

Mohtarem, the top security official in the province where the attack took place, suggested that Bhutto's camp had not seriously considered the need for security for her return after eight years in exile.

"They got carried away by political exigencies instead of taking our concern seriously," he said.

Bhutto claimed the next attack against her would target her homes in Karachi and her hometown of Larkana, using attackers posing as supporters of a rival political faction. She said militants had "gained strength" but the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan should not delay elections slated for January.

"We have to do the best that we can to restore democracy ... so people can stand up as the guardians of their society," Bhutto said.

Death Estimates Vary

Karachi police chief Azhar Farooqi said that 113 people died, including 20 policemen, and 300 people were wounded. Officials at six hospitals in Karachi reported 136 dead and around 250 wounded.

Manzur Mughal, the Karachi police officer in charge of the investigation, said detectives had established that a young man who threw a grenade blew himself up 22 seconds later next to the truck.

Although Bhutto was not injured, the explosions turned her jubilant homecoming parade into a scene of carnage, ripping victims apart and hurling a fireball into the sky. The attack shattered the windows of her truck.

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said he was shocked by the attack and condemned it in the strongest possible terms. He said the blast was part of a "conspiracy against democracy," the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan said.

Bhutto has made enemies of Islamic militants by taking a pro-American line and negotiating a possible moderate, U.S.-friendly alliance with Musharraf, a longtime political rival despite their shared liberal values. The attack cast a pall over Bhutto's talks with Musharraf and possible plans for such an alliance. Leaders of her party were meeting at her Karachi residence and Bhutto was expected to hold a news conference afterward.

It remained unclear whether the attack would stiffen the two leaders' resolve to fight militancy together or strain already bad relations between Bhutto and the ruling party.

Musharraf won re-election to the presidency in a vote this month by lawmakers that is being challenged in the Supreme Court. If he is confirmed for a new five-year presidential term, Musharraf has promised to quit the military and restore civilian rule.

Bhutto plans to contest parliamentary elections due in January, and has ambitions to win a third term as prime minister.

After consultation with political parties, Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said that he has asked the government to make the election campaign short amid concern that large gatherings could be vulnerable to attacks. Police put Thursday's crowd at 150,000.

Investigation Underway

Musharraf appealed for calm and promised an exhaustive investigation and stiff punishment for those responsible, APP reported.

Police collected forensic evidence including pieces of flesh and shoes from the site of the bombing. The truck Bhutto carrying was hoisted away using a crane. One side bearing a big portrait of the former premier was spattered with blood and riddled with shrapnel holes.

Sherpao, who said 18 police were killed, asserted that authorities had done everything possible to protect the huge gathering of Bhutto supporters marking her return, but noted that electronic jammers fitted to the police escort vehicles were ineffective against a manually detonated bomb.

On the eve of Bhutto's arrival, a provincial government official cited intelligence reports that three suicide bombers linked to Mehsud — probably the most prominent leader of Islamic militants destabilizing its northwestern border regions near Afghanistan — were in Karachi. The local government had also warned Bhutto could be targeted by Taliban or al-Qaida.

Mehsud's spokesman could not be reached for comment, but an alleged associate of the militant commander, Isa Khan, denied Taliban involvement.

"The government's secret agencies are involved in it. Taliban have no part in it," Khan told an AP reporter by phone from the volatile northwestern tribal town of Bannu, where he is believed to command pro-Taliban militants loyal to Mehsud.

"This was an effort to provoke common people and create hatred against the Taliban. We do not do anything that harm common people," he said.

Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, said on Dawn News television that he suspected that "elements sitting within the government" who would lose out if Bhutto returned to power were involved in the attack.

He didn't elaborate, though Bhutto has accused conservatives in the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party and the security services of secretly supporting religious extremists.

Bhutto Remains Resolute

Musharraf's camp has sounded conciliatory.

Presidential spokesman Rashid Qureshi said he doubted the attack would deflect Bhutto from her course.

"If someone thinks that by spreading this kind of terror they will stop the political process in Pakistan, I don't think that's correct, I don't think that will happen," Qureshi told the AP.

Musharraf believes that "all political forces need to combine to face this threat which is basically the major, major issue that faces Pakistan," he said.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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