Benazir Bhutto's assassination rocked the Philadelphia area, too, where several Pakistani Americans interviewed yesterday said they learned of it in morning phone calls from friends in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Lahore.

Victor Gill, 56, a registered nurse who described himself as a human-rights activist and sympathizer with Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, said the former prime minister was a charismatic leader and friend.

They met six years ago at her home-in-exile in Dubai. A few months later, Gill helped arrange a speaking engagement for her at St. Joseph's University, where she spoke twice - in English, and her native Urdu, he recalled.

Gill, of Northeast Philadelphia, said he also joined her when she lobbied Congress, including two Pennsylvania Republicans.

"I remember taking her to see Joseph Pitts and Arlen Specter," said Gill, whose most prized possessions include an autographed copy of Bhutto's autobiography. "To Victor Gill, whose path crossed mine when we were students protesting and struggling for democracy. Good wishes," she wrote.

Although they didn't know each other in their college days, they realized, on reminiscing, that they had attended some of the same political protests in Pakistan.

Bhutto enrolled at Harvard University in 1969, two years after her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, founded the Pakistan People's Party.

Gill studied at Gordon College in Rawalpindi, just a few blocks from the crowded park where Bhutto was fatally shot yesterday.

As Bhutto prepared to return to Pakistan to campaign for next month's parliamentary elections, she and Gill remained in e-mail contact.

"She sent me a picture of her son, Bilawal, who graduated from high school in Dubai," Gill said. "I sent back a picture of my daughter, Kishwer Vikaas, who graduated from Temple."

Their contact ceased Oct. 18, he said, when she returned to Pakistan and narrowly escaped injury in the bombing of her motorcade.

So who killed her?

Gill believes "it is the military secret agencies conducting these operations" so they can stay in power and rule the government.

"The Musharraf government would say that it is al-Qaeda, the extremists and so on," Gill said, "but there is a wide consensus in Pakistan that it is not al-Qaeda or the Taliban that is killing people. The wide consensus is that Musharraf keeps some bomb blasts going to keep the cause alive, so he can continue to beg money from the U.S."

Saadat Abdullah, 57, of Upper Darby, who came to America from Rawalpindi 29 years ago to work at his brother's pharmacy, took a different view.

"Before she returned to Pakistan, she made it clear that her main objective would be to finish terrorism. It was like giving a challenge to the terrorists," and those elements killed her, he said.

Glued to the Urdu-language cable channel GEO, which broadcasts from Pakistan, Abdullah watched as first it was announced that Bhutto was safe, then injured, then unconscious, and finally that she was dead.

Abdullah's wife, Nasira, was awake and she was saddened, too.

"It looks like Pakistan is heading toward chaos," he said. "But the roots" of the current crisis "go back to the

mujaheddin

who were trained to fight in Afghanistan" in the 1980s. "We call it the Kalashnikov culture, which was introduced into Pakistan at that time."

Bhatti Anjum, president of the Christian League of Pakistan in America, and of the Muslim League of Pennsylvania, said the attack smacked of "al-Qaeda or Taliban, for sure."

Surrounded by friends at a Pakistani-owned kebab shop in Upper Darby, he added: "She was not only a Pakistani leader. She was an international leader. This is a big loss."

Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.