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Slaying of Benazir Bhutto sparks rioting across Pakistan, throws democracy efforts into chaos

Slaying of Benazir Bhutto sparks rioting across Pakistan, throws democracy efforts into chaos

The assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto by a gunman at a campaign rally sparked riots across Pakistan by her enraged supporters, leaving hopes for democracy hanging by a thread Friday in this nuclear-armed U.S. ally.
The death of President Pervez Musharraf's most powerful opponent plunged the nation into turmoil just 12 days before elections, and threatened its already unsteady role as a key fighter against Islamic terror.
The attacker opened fire as Bhutto, one of Pakistan's most famous and enduring politicians, waved to supporters from a vehicle Thursday while departing the rally. The attacker then blew himself up, killing 20 other people, according to witnesses and police.
The slaying sparked violence in several cities that killed at least nine other people.
Nawaz Sharif, another opposition politician, announced he was boycotting Jan. 8 parliamentary elections in which Bhutto was hoping to recapture the premiership, and Musharraf reportedly weighed canceling the poll.
Musharraf blamed Islamic terrorists, pledging in a nationally televised speech that "we will not rest until we eliminate these terrorists and root them out."
U.S. President George W. Bush, who spoke briefly by phone with Musharraf, looked tense as he spoke to reporters, denouncing the "murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan's democracy."
Bhutto's death closed yet another grim chapter in Pakistan's bloodstained history, 28 years after her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, another ex-prime minister, was hanged by a military dictatorship in the same northern city where she was killed.
Bhutto was to be buried Friday afternoon near her father's grave in the family's ancestral village of Garhi Khuda Bakhsh, said Nazir Dkhoki, a spokesman for Bhutto's party.
Dhoki, sobbing with grief during a telephone interview, said Bhutto's husband Asif Ali Zardari and her children had arrived from Dubai to attend the funeral.
Bhutto's death left her Pakistan People's Party leaderless and plunged the Muslim nation of 160 million into violence and recriminations, with Musharraf blaming Muslim extremists and Bhutto supporters accusing his government of failing to protect her in the wake of death threats and previous attempts on her life.
As the news spread, supporters gathered at the hospital where Bhutto had been taken, smashed glass doors, stoned cars and chanted, "Killer, Killer, Musharraf."
Musharraf called senior staff into an emergency meeting to discuss a response to the killing and whether to postpone the election, an Interior Ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks. Musharraf also announced three days of mourning for Bhutto, with all businesses, schools and banks to close.
The U.N. Security Council vigorously denounced the killing and urged "all Pakistanis to exercise restraint and maintain stability in the country."
The United States, meanwhile, struggled to reformulate its plan to stabilize the country based on a rapprochement between Bhutto and Musharraf.
FBI spokesman Richard Kolko in Washington said the agency was trying to determine the validity of a purported claim of responsibility for the attack by al-Qaida.
At least nine people were killed in violence in the aftermath of the assassination.
One man was killed in a shootout between police and protesters in Tando Allahyar, a town 120 miles north of Karachi, Pakistan's commercial hub, said Mayor Kanwar Naveed. Four others were killed in Karachi, two were killed elsewhere in the southern Sindh province and two in Lahore, police said.
Karachi shopkeepers quickly shuttered their stores as protesters burned vehicles and a gas station, said Fayyaz Leghri, a local police official. Gunmen shot and wounded two police officers, he said.
Bhutto's supporters in many towns burned banks, shops and state-run grocery stores. Some torched ruling party offices, Pakistani media reported.
Authorities would deploy troops to stop violence if needed, said Akhtar Zamin, home minister for Sindh province.
Sharif, another former premier and leader of a rival opposition party, announced his party would boycott the elections, seen as vital to restoring democracy after eight years of authoritarian rule under Musharraf.
He also demanded the resignation of Musharraf, a former army chief who toppled Sharif in a 1999 coup.
The increasingly unpopular Musharraf, who has pledged to restore democracy, stepped down as military leader last month, but maneuvered to hold onto the presidency.
"Musharraf is the cause of all the problems," Sharif said.
Next to Musharraf, Bhutto, 54, was the country's best known political figure, serving two terms as prime minister between 1988 and 1996. She was respected in the West for her liberal outlook and determination to combat Islamic extremism.
Bhutto had just addressed more than 5,000 supporters in Rawalpindi on Thursday when the attacker struck as she was leaving the rally in a white sports utility vehicle.
A smiling Bhutto had stuck her head out of the sunroof to respond to youths chanting her name, said Sardar Qamar Hayyat, an official from Bhutto's party.
"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.
Bhutto was rushed into emergency surgery. She was struck by two bullets, one through the back of her neck that damaged her spinal cord before exiting from the side of her head, a doctor on the surgical team said. The damage to her spinal cord was too great to save her, he said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Hours after Bhutto's death, supporters carried her body out of the hospital in a wooden coffin.
Pakistani analysts were plunged into gloom.
"This assassination is the most serious setback for democracy in Pakistan," said Rasul Baksh Rais, a political scientist at Lahore's University of Management Sciences. "It shows extremists are powerful enough to disrupt the democratic process."
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Associated Press writer Munir Ahmad in Islamabad and Ashraf Khan in Karachi contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-04-23 06:26 GMT+08:00