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Bhutto aides accuse government of cover-up in her killing; militants deny involvement

Bhutto aides accuse government of cover-up in her killing; militants deny involvement

Islamic militants said Saturday they had no link to Benazir Bhutto's assassination, dismissing government claims that a leader of pro-Taliban forces in Pakistan orchestrated the suicide attack on the opposition leader.
Bhutto's aides also said they doubted that militant commander Baitullah Mehsud was behind the attack, and accused the government of a cover-up. Despite the deepening controversy, the Interior Ministry said it did not need foreign help to probe the killing.
The dispute, along with conflicting reports about Bhutto's exact cause of death, could inflame the violence wracking this nuclear-armed nation two days after the popular former prime minister was killed in a suicide attack. Thirty-eight people have died in the unrest.
Rioters have destroyed 176 banks, 34 gas stations, 72 train cars and 18 rail stations, said ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema. At least 100 prisoners were sprung from jails, he said.
President Pervez Musharraf told his security chiefs Saturday to end the riots, saying those looting and plundering "must be dealt with firmly and all measures be taken to ensure (the) safety and security of the people," the Associated Press of Pakistan reported.
With Bhutto's supporters rampaging across the country, Pakistan's election commission called an emergency meeting for Monday to discuss the impact on planned Jan. 8 parliamentary elections.
Nine election offices in Bhutto's home province of Sindh in the south were burned to the ground, along with voter rolls and ballot boxes, the commission said in a statement. The violence also hampered the printing of ballot papers, training of poll workers and other pre-election logistics, the statement said.
The U.S. government, which sees Pakistan as a crucial ally in the war on terror, has pushed Musharraf to keep the election on track to promote stability, moderation and democracy here, U.S. officials said.
Prime Minister Mohammedmian Soomro said Friday the government had no immediate plans to postpone the poll.
Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party called its own meeting for Sunday to decide whether to participate in the vote. Her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, told the British Broadcasting Corp. their son would read out a message left by Bhutto and addressed to the party in event of her death.
Nawaz Sharif, leader of another opposition party who on Saturday visited Bhutto's grave, has said he would boycott the election.
On Saturday, roads across Bhutto's southern Sindh province were littered with burning vehicles, smoking reminders of the continuing chaos. Factories, stores and restaurants were set ablaze in Pakistan's biggest city, Karachi, where at least 17 people have been killed and dozens injured, officials said.
Business centers, gas stations and schools across the country remained closed and many roads were deserted.
Thousands of Bhutto supporters ran riot in the garrison city of Rawalpindi near the capital after prayers for the slain leader, smashing property and clashing with police who fired tear gas to try and subdue the crowd.
Desperate to quell the violence, the government sent troops into several cities. Soldiers patrolled some Karachi neighborhoods Saturday, and residents complained of shortages of food and gasoline.
Sharif and other opposition leaders met with Bhutto's family to express condolences, and Musharraf called Zardari promising to make every effort to bring his wife's killers to justice, state-run Pakistan Television reported.
The government blamed Bhutto's killing on al-Qaida and Taliban militants operating with increasing impunity in the lawless tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. It released a transcript Friday of a purported conversation between Mehsud and another militant, apparently discussing the assassination.
"It was a spectacular job. They were very brave boys who killed her," Mehsud said, according to the transcript.
The government also blames Mehsud for the October bomb attack against Bhutto that left her unhurt but killed more than 140 people in Karachi.
But a spokesman for Mehsud, Maulana Mohammed Umer, denied the militant was involved in the attack and dismissed the allegations as "government propaganda."
"We strongly deny it. Baitullah Mehsud is not involved in the killing of Benazir Bhutto," he said in a telephone call he made to The Associated Press from the tribal region of South Waziristan.
"The fact is that we are only against America, and we don't consider political leaders of Pakistan our enemy," he said, adding he was speaking on instructions from Mehsud.
Mehsud heads Tehrik-i-Taliban, a newly formed coalition of Islamic militants believed linked to al-Qaida and committed to waging holy war against the government.
Bhutto's party accused the government of trying to frame Mehsud, saying the militant _ through emissaries _ had previously told Bhutto he was not involved in the Karachi bombing.
"The story that al-Qaida or Baitullah Mehsud did it appears to us to be a planted story, an incorrect story, because they want to divert the attention," said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Bhutto's party.
After the Karachi attack, Bhutto accused elements in the ruling pro-Musharraf party of plotting to kill her. The government denied the claims. Babar said Bhutto's allegations were never investigated.
Bhutto was killed Thursday evening when a suicide attacker shot at her and then blew himself up as she left a rally in Rawalpindi. The attack killed about 20 others as well. Authorities initially said she died from bullet wounds, and a surgeon who treated her said the impact from shrapnel on her skull killed her.
But Cheema said she was killed when she tried to duck back into the armored vehicle during the attack, and the shock waves from the blast smashed her head into a lever attached to the sunroof, fracturing her skull.
Bhutto's spokeswoman Sherry Rehman, who was in the vehicle with her boss, disputed the government's version.
"To hear that Ms. Bhutto fell from an impact from a bump on a sun roof is absolutely rubbish. It is dangerous nonsense, because it implies there was no assassination attempt," she told the BBC.
"There was a clear bullet wound at the back of the neck. It went in one direction and came out another," she said. "My entire car is coated with her blood, my clothes, everybody _ so she did not concuss her head against the sun roof."
Cheema stood by the government's version of events on Saturday, and said Bhutto's party was free to exhume her body if they wanted and conduct a post mortem _ something Bhutto's widower Zardari had reportedly resisted immediately after her death.
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton called for an independent, international investigation into Bhutto's death _ perhaps by the United Nations _ saying Friday there was "no reason to trust the Pakistani government."
Cheema dismissed the suggestion. "This is not an ordinary criminal matter in which we require assistance of the international community. I think we are capable of handling it," he said.
The government said it was forming two inquiries into Bhutto's death _ one probe to be carried out by a high court judge, and another by security forces.
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AP reporters Zarar Khan in Larkana, Sadaqat Jan and Munir Ahmad in Islamabad, Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Afzal Nadeem in Karachi contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-04-16 19:39 GMT+08:00