Conspiracy Theories Surround Bhutto's Death

The investigation into Benazir Bhutto's assasination continues. Pakistan's government has turned down offers of investigative help from the international community. Pakistan's government blames al-Qaida for the attack, but experts say a lot of people wanted to kill her.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The investigation into Bhutto's death continues. Pakistan's government has turned down offers of investigative help from the international community to find out who was behind her assassination. Officials there were quick to blame al-Qaida, but so far the group has made no official claim of responsibility.

U.S. and Pakistani officials say Bhutto's murder may have been part of a larger offensive by a group backed by al-Qaida.

NPR's Jackie Northam has been following the story, and she joins us.

Jackie, first of all, what can you tell us about where the investigation is right now?

JACKIE NORTHAM: Well, first of all, the official Pakistan government version of how Bhutto died has certainly changed. Initially, it came out that she died from gunshot wounds and maybe shrapnel wounds from a suicide bombing.

But then on Friday, Pakistan's interior minister, Javed Cheema, came out and said, oh no, she suffered a fatal skull fracture when her head hit a lever on the sunroof of the armored SUV she was in. And people who were with Bhutto at that time of the attack and in the hospital when she died say that nonsense. You could clearly see gunshot wounds. And also one of the television stations in Pakistan on Saturday evening aired some amateur video footage and you can see Bhutto standing up to the sunroof and a man behind her holding a gun.

So there are a lot of conflicting reports. But just the fact that the government came out and changed its story about how she died and so quickly blamed al-Qaida probably raises more questions than answers.

HANSEN: What was the basis for the government's claim that al-Qaida was behind the assassination?

NORTHAM: Well, because al-Qaida and al-Qaida-backed groups are based all along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan and have grown in numbers over the past year. The government there blames one man. His name is Baitullah Mehsud, and he's a leader of a group now called the Taliban Movement of Pakistan. This is a different group than the Taliban from Afghanistan.

It's believed the group is backed by al-Qaida, and they're homegrown militants. And I spoke with military officials and security analysts when I was recently in Pakistan, and certainly with people here in the U.S. who closely follow this. And they all say this group is a very serious concern that its ranks have grown, and also their plans, they're focusing on Pakistan - attacks on the government and the people rather than Afghanistan.

This was something the Defense Secretary Robert Gates confirmed earlier this month. And you've already seen a series of attacks over the past six months believed to have been carried out by this group that have left hundreds of people dead in Pakistan and is believed Bhutto's death was part of that offensive.

HANSEN: Has Pakistan's government been able to contain any of those extremist groups?

NORTHAM: The people I spoke with say the Pakistan army was able to beat back the militants recently in an area called Suwat. And this is along the northwest province near the border with Afghanistan. The Taliban had left the tribal area and moved into towns and cities in that area. They captured Pakistani soldiers and beheaded some of them and they closed barbershops and schools and beat women who didn't have their heads covered.

But the military were able to push them back in most of the towns the Taliban had taken. But it was a very worrying sign that they were moving away from the tribal areas where they have had their sanctuary for years and into the towns and villages. And, obviously, concerns that it'll happen again.

You talk with government officials there and they say they got better intelligence now, that type of thing. But that's hard to believe because they've not been to contain these militant groups over the past two years. In fact, U.S. intelligence reports say these groups have grown. And that's a real worry here in the U.S.

HANSEN: Jackie, very briefly, has the U.S. put any pressure on Musharraf to do something?

NORTHAM: They've put pressure on him for years, but, so far, you know, it hasn't borne fruit at all. I mean, he has not been able to contain the Taliban. And, again, in fact, the numbers have grown. They've reconstituted. They're much stronger now with weapons, with numbers in their ranks, that type of thing. It's a real problem in Pakistan.

HANSEN: NPR's Jackie Northam.

Thank you, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Liane.

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