Thursday, December 27, 2007

Benazir Bhutto Assassinated

Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated. Here's the New York Times' report:

The Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated near the capital, Islamabad, on Thursday. Witnesses said Ms. Bhutto, who was appearing at a political campaign rally, was fired upon at close range by a gunman, and then struck by shrapnel from a blast that the government said was caused by a suicide bomber.

Ms. Bhutto, who had twice been the country’s prime minister and was a leading contender to be the next prime minister after elections in January, was declared dead by doctors at a hospital in Rawalpindi at 6:16 p.m. local time. At least a dozen more people were killed in the attack, but some reports said there were at least 20 dead.

The exact circumstances surrounding the assassination were still unclear. Senior officials in Ms. Bhutto’s party said she had finished addressing the rally and was sitting in a car waving at the crowd when she was hit in the head by a sniper in a nearby building. They said the car moved on for another 50 yards before a suicide attacker blew himself up.

Other witnesses described a single assassin opening fire on Ms. Bhutto and her entourage, hitting her at least once in the neck and once in the chest, before blowing himself up. Dr. Abbas Hayat, professor of pathology at Rawalpindi General Hospital where Ms. Bhutto was taken, said doctors tried to revive her for 35 minutes, but that she had shrapnel wounds and head injuries and was in heart failure. He said he could not confirm whether she had bullet injuries.

A close aide to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf blamed Islamic militants for the assassination, and said it was carried out by a suicide bomber.

Mr. Musharraf declared a three-day mourning period, and condemnation of the assassination flowed in from around the world. President Bush said “The United States strongly condemns this cowardly attack by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan’s democracy.” Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, called it “an assault on stability.” Ms. Bhutto’s death is the latest blow to Pakistan’s treacherous political situation, and leaves her party leaderless in the short term and unable to effectively compete in hotly contested parliamentary elections that are two weeks away, according to Hasan Askari Rizvi, a leading Pakistani political and military analyst.

The assassination also adds to the enormous pressure on the Bush administration over Pakistan, which has sunk billions in aid into the country without accomplishing its main goals of finding the Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden or ending the activities of Islamic militants and the Taliban in border areas with Afghanistan.

Hundreds of supporters had gathered at Ms. Bhutto’s campaign rally, which was being held at Liaqut Bagh, a park that is a common venue for rallies and speeches, in Rawalpindi, the garrison city near Islamabad.

Amid the confusion after the explosion, the site was littered with pools of blood. Shoes and caps of party workers were lying on the asphalt, and shards of glass were strewn about the ground. Pakistani television cameras captured images of ambulances pushing through crowds of dazed and injured people at the scene of the assassination.

Farah Ispahani, a party official from Ms. Bhutto’s party, said: “It is too soon to confirm the number of dead from the party’s side. Private television channels are reporting twenty dead.” Television channels were also quoting police sources as saying that at least 14 people were dead.

At the hospital where Ms. Bhutto was taken, a large number of police began to cordon off the area as angry party workers smashed windows. Many protesters shouted “Musharraf Dog.” One man was crying hysterically, saying his sister had been killed. Dozens of people in the crowed beat their chests and chanted slogans against Mr. Musharraf.

Nahid Khan, a close aide to Ms. Bhutto, was sobbing in a room next to the operating theater, and the corridors of the hospital swarmed with mourners.

Ms. Bhutto had been warned by the government before her return to Pakistan that she faced threats to her security. In October, Ms. Bhutto survived another deadly suicide attack in the southern city of Karachi on the day she returned from years of self-imposed exile abroad to contest the parliamentary elections. Ms. Bhutto blamed extremist Islamic groups who she said wanted to take over the country for that attack, which narrowly missed her but killed 134 people. But she also complained that the government had taken insufficient steps to safeguard her parade.

The government has maintained that she ignored their warnings against such public gatherings and that holding them placed herself and her followers in unnecessary danger.

The assassination comes just days after Mr. Musharraf lifted a state of emergency in the country, which he had used to suspend the Constitution and arrest thousands of political opponents, and which he said he had imposed in part because of terrorist threats by extremists in Pakistan.

With frustration in Washington growing over Mr. Musharraf’s shortcomings, and his delays in returning the country to civilian rule, Ms. Bhutto had become an appealing solution for the country. She was openly critical of Mr. Musharraf’s ineffectiveness at dealing with Islamic militants and welcomed American involvement, unlike another Musharraf rival and former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

Bush administration officials began working behind the scenes over the summer to help Ms. Bhutto and Mr. Musharraf create a power-sharing deal to orchestrate a transition to democracy that would leave Mr. Musharraf in the presidency, while not making a mockery of President Bush’s attempts to push democracy in the Muslim world.

Ms. Bhutto’s assassination immediately raised questions about whether the parliamentary elections scheduled for January will now go ahead or be postponed. Mr. Musharraf was carrying out an emergency meeting with top government officials Thursday following Ms. Bhutto’s death, the aide to Mr. Musharraf said. He said no decision had been made on whether to delay the national elections.

The aide dismissed complaints from members of Ms. Bhutto’s party that the government failed to provide adequate security for Ms. Bhutto.
I will provide commentary and analysis on the assassination in upcoming posts.

Photo: New York Times