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Bhutto killing: Who will benefit?

Supporters riot; election in jeopardy

Former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif, leaving the hospital where Bhutto died. Sharif announced his party would boycott upcoming elections.
Former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif, leaving the hospital where Bhutto died. Sharif announced his party would boycott upcoming elections.Read moreAssociated Press

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan - Moments after a euphoric crowd stretched its arms toward Benazir Bhutto, moments after the charismatic former prime minister made herself vulnerable by saluting her followers through a car's sunroof, the street was awash with blood.

And in that chaotic instant, a dangerous world became even more dangerous.

Efforts to restore democracy in Pakistan suffered a crushing blow with yesterday's assassination of the 54-year-old Bhutto after a rally. A country that has nuclear weapons was even more destabilized, and America's hopes to maintain Pakistan as a bulwark against terrorism were shaken.

On whose behalf did the suicidal assassin kill Bhutto, 20 others and himself? No one knew for certain. But clearly, this was a victory for extremists.

President Pervez Musharraf blamed Islamic terrorists. "Today, after this tragic incident, I want to express my firm resolve . . . we will not rest until we eliminate these terrorists and root them out," he told a national television audience.

Musharraf debated whether to postpone Jan. 8 elections - a bitter irony, because Bhutto had returned from exile to run in that election against Musharraf, leader of a military government since a 1999 coup. Another opposition politician, Nawaz Sharif, announced he would boycott any vote in the wake of Bhutto's murder.

In the United States, a tense-looking President Bush condemned the attack, blaming it on "murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan's democracy." Bush spoke briefly by phone with Musharraf. The Bush administration had banked on a plan to stabilize Pakistan with a rapprochement between Bhutto and Musharraf.

Across Pakistan, the shock of yesterday's bloodshed faded into violence, as Bhutto's enraged supporters burned vehicles and attacked shops. At least nine people died in the mayhem that followed.

Rightly or wrongly, her supporters blamed Musharraf, chanting, "Killer, Killer, Musharraf!"

Hours earlier, addressing more than 5,000 supporters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, Bhutto scoffed at reports that foreign troops would be sent here to help fight resurgent militants linked to the Taliban and al Qaeda in the area bordering Afghanistan.

"Why should foreign troops come in?" she asked. "We can take care of this, I can take care of this, you can take care of this."

Then, as Bhutto left the rally in a white sports utility vehicle, the attacker struck.

Sardar Qamar Hayyat, an official from Bhutto's party, was about 10 yards away. A smiling Bhutto stuck her head out of the sunroof and responded to the chants of her supporters, he said.

"Then I saw a thin, young man jumping toward her vehicle from the back and opening fire. Moments later, I saw her speeding vehicle going away. That was the time when I heard a blast and fell down," Hayyat said.

The blast was from a bomb the young man apparently was carrying. The carnage was immediate.

Bhutto was rushed into emergency surgery. A doctor on the surgical team said a bullet in the back of her neck damaged her spinal cord before exiting from the side of her head. Another bullet pierced the back of her shoulder and came out through her chest, he said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. She was given an open-heart massage, but the spinal-cord damage was too great, he said.

"At 6:16 p.m. she expired," said Wasif Ali Khan, a member of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, who was at Rawalpindi General Hospital.

Bhutto's supporters questioned why the government had not provided her better security in the wake of death threats and previous attempts on her life - including a bombing that killed more than 140 people when she returned from exile in October from London and Dubai.

Yesterday, hundreds of riot police manned security checkpoints at the park for Bhutto's first public meeting in the city since her return. In November, Musharraf forced her to cancel a planned rally here, citing security fears. In recent weeks, suicide bombers have repeatedly targeted security forces in Rawalpindi, a city near the capital where Musharraf stays and the Pakistan army has its headquarters.

Opposition leader Sharif, in announcing that his party would boycott the elections, also called for the resignation of Musharraf, a former army chief who toppled Sharif, then prime minister, in a 1999 coup.

"Musharraf is the cause of all the problems," he said. "The federation of Pakistan cannot remain intact in the presence of President Musharraf."

The killing could strengthen the increasingly unpopular Musharraf by eliminating a strong rival, or weaken him by sparking uncontrollable riots across the country.

Bhutto was killed just a few miles from the scene of her father's violent death 28 years earlier. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a former prime minister and the founder of the party that his daughter would later lead, was executed by hanging in 1979 in Rawalpindi on charges of conspiracy to murder; supporters said the charges had been politically motivated by the military regime. His killing led to violent protests across the country similar to the ones that raged across the country yesterday. *