RAWALPINDI, Pakistan - Enraged crowds rioted across Pakistan and hopes for democracy hung by a thread after Benazir Bhutto was gunned down yesterday as she waved to supporters after a rally from the sunroof of her armored vehicle.

The death of Bhutto, 54, a former prime minister who was President Pervez Musharraf's most powerful opponent, threw the nation into chaos just 12 days before planned elections, and threatened its already unsteady role as a key fighter against Islamic terrorism.

The assassination sparked violence that killed at least nine people and plunged into turmoil efforts to restore democracy to this nuclear-armed U.S. ally.

Another opposition politician, Nawaz Sharif, announced he was boycotting Jan. 8 parliamentary elections in which Bhutto - who returned to Pakistan in October after eight years of self-imposed exile - had hoped to recapture the premiership.

Musharraf blamed Islamic terrorists for the assassination, pledging in a nationally televised speech that "we will not rest until we eliminate these terrorists and root them out."

He called senior staff into an emergency meeting to discuss a response to the killing and whether to postpone the elections, an Interior Ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Musharraf announced three days of mourning for Bhutto, with all businesses, schools and banks to close.

President Bush, who spoke briefly by phone with Musharraf, denounced the "murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan's democracy."

U.S. officials in Washington said they were trying to determine who might have carried out the attack. FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said the agency was working with its U.S. intelligence community partners reviewing al-Qaeda claims, reportedly made on Islamist Web sites, of responsibility.

The validity of the claims was "undetermined," he said.

Bhutto was struck down as an unknown gunman opened fire and, according to witnesses and police, blew himself up, killing 20 other people and wounding many.

The assassination closed another grim chapter in Pakistan's bloodstained history, 28 years after Bhutto's father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by a military dictatorship in this same northern city where she was killed.

Her death left her Pakistan People's Party leaderless and plunged the Muslim nation of 160 million into violence and recriminations.

Bhutto supporters accused Musharraf's government of failing to protect her after death threats and previous attempts on her life. Supporters gathered at the hospital where she had been taken, smashed doors, stoned cars, and chanted, "Killer, Killer, Musharraf."

The killing appeared to shut off a possible avenue for a credible return to democracy after eight years under Musharraf's increasingly unpopular rule, and left unanswered questions, chiefly whether it could strengthen Musharraf by eliminating a strong rival, or weaken him by sparking uncontrollable riots.

The United States had been struggling to reformulate its plan to stabilize the country based on a rapprochement between Bhutto and Musharraf. Bhutto had returned hoping for a power-sharing deal with Musharraf, but had become his fierce critic, accusing elements in the ruling party of backing militants to kill her.

Pakistani analysts were plunged into gloom. Talat Masood, a retired general, said conditions "have reached a point where it is too dangerous for political parties to operate."

Sharif, another former prime minister who leads an opposition party, demanded that Musharraf, a former army chief who toppled Sharif in a 1999 coup, resign immediately. "Musharraf is the cause of all the problems," he said.

Bhutto served two terms as prime minister between 1988 and 1996. Instantly recognizable, with graceful features under an ever-present head scarf, she bore the legacy of her hanged father and was respected in the West for her liberal outlook and determination to combat Islamic extremism.

Addressing more than 5,000 yesterday at a park in Rawalpindi, Bhutto dismissed the notion that Pakistan needed foreigners to help it quell resurgent extremists linked to the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the area bordering Afghanistan. She said: "Why should foreign troops come in? We can take care of this. I can take care of this. You can take care of this."

As Bhutto left the rally in a white SUV, youths chanted her name and supportive slogans, said Sardar Qamar Hayyat, an official from Bhutto's party who was about 10 yards away. A smiling Bhutto stuck her head out of the sunroof and responded, he said.

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

The SUV raced toward Rawalpindi General Hospital but was too badly damaged from the blast to complete the journey; occupants had to hoist Bhutto into another vehicle.

She was rushed to 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. A bullet pierced the back of her shoulder and exited via her chest, he said on condition of anonymity.

"At 6:16 p.m. she expired," said Wasif Ali Khan, a member of Bhutto's party who was at the hospital. Hours later, supporters carried out her body in a plain wooden coffin and sent it for burial in her ancestral home near the southern city of Larkana.

Bhutto supporters in many towns burned banks, shops, and state-run groceries. Some torched ruling-party offices, according to Pakistani media.

Bhutto, who was married and had three children, returned to Pakistan on Oct. 18, and her homecoming parade in Karachi was also targeted by a suicide attacker, who killed about 140. She narrowly escaped injury.

Rawalpindi, a garrison city, has a history of political violence. At the same park where Bhutto made her last speech, Pakistan's first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was shot to death in 1951. The park is named after him.

Musharraf survived two bombing attacks here in 2003. Earlier in 2003, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind, was captured in Rawalpindi. Bhutto's father was hanged here in 1979 on charges of conspiracy to murder - an execution that led to violent protests similar to those that raged yesterday.

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This article includes information from the Washington Post

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