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Pakistan police formally accuse al-Qaida-linked militant leader in Bhutto killing

Pakistan police formally accuse al-Qaida-linked militant leader in Bhutto killing

Pakistani police on Saturday formally accused the top Taliban leader in the country and four others of planning the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
Police filed preliminary charges in court against Baitullah Mehsud, who had been named by the Pakistani government in the Dec. 27 killing of Bhutto in a suicide and gun-attack during a public rally. Mehsud, alleged to have al-Qaida connections, is underground and it was not clear if the police were close to catching him.
A judge has issued non-bailable warrants of arrest against Mehsud and four others, said Chaudhry Abdul Majeed, the chief investigator in the case.
Mehsud was named by President Pervez Musharraf within days of the assassination, but the filing of the preliminary charges Saturday completes a legal formality. It is the first legal step before an arrest can be made.
A Pakistani court, meanwhile, acquitted the brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a murder case after the families of the dead suddenly withdrew their accusations, lawyers said.
The turnaround comes after the second-place showing by Sharif's party in the Feb. 18 parliamentary elections. The party is expected to form a ruling coalition with Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party.
In northwestern Pakistan, meanwhile, police searched for clues after a suicide attack at a police officer's funeral late Friday killed more than 40 people in the Swat Valley, where troops are fighting pro-Taliban militants.
Another suicide bombing in nearby Bajur Saturday killed one person and wounded 19 others, mostly security personnel, officials said.
More than 60 people were hurt in Friday's attack, when a bomber blew himself up amid some 800 mourners who had gathered for the funeral of Javed Iqbal, a senior police officer killed in a roadside bombing earlier in the day. Among the dead was Iqbal's 16-year-old son, Ghazan.
The suicide bombing was the bloodiest attack in the Swat Valley since militant followers of a pro-Taliban cleric, Maulana Fazlullah, grabbed control of large parts of the scenic corner of Pakistan's restive northwest, a shocking reflection of how Musharraf's government has lost control of parts of the region.
Mehsud, the suspect in Bhutto's assassination, is the commander of Tehrik-e-Taliban, an umbrella group of Islamic militant groups linked to al-Qaida. He is believed to be based in the volatile South Waziristan province near the border with Afghanistan, and has been blamed for a series of suicide attacks across Pakistan.
Majeed refused to give details of the investigation into the specific roles that the suspects are accused of playing in the assassination.
He said the others named in the charges are Ibadur Rehman, Imramullah, Faiz Muhammad and Abbdullah. All five are accused of being involved in planning and financing the assassination plot, he said. Imramullah and Abbdullah use only one name.
Police have already arrested five suspects in connection with Bhutto's killing, including Husnain Gul, who allegedly facilitated Bhutto's attacker because he wanted to avenge the death of a friend in a military attack on a mosque last year.
Bhutto's party was the biggest winner in last month's election, followed by the group led by Nawaz Sharif. Leaders of the two parties hope to form a coalition that would give them the two-thirds majority needed to impeach Musharraf or curtail his powers through constitutional amendments.
Musharraf has faced calls to resign since his Muslim League-Q party was soundly defeated in the vote. He has refused to step down.
Musharraf came to power in a 1999 coup that ousted Sharif. Although Pakistanis initially welcomed Musharraf, he has become increasingly unpopular amid accusations he has trampled on democracy and the judiciary.
Nawaz Sharif's brother, Shahbaz Sharif, was the chief minister, or top elected official, of the eastern province of Punjab when five men were killed in what their families said were fake shootouts with the police in 1998.
The families on Saturday told the court they did not want Shahbaz Sharif to be tried, said the plaintiffs' lawyer, Aftab Bajwa. He would not give a reason why and the relatives also refused to explain.
Nawaz Sharif's party is expected to form the government in Punjab after winning provincial assembly elections there last month.
Bajwa said Shahbaz Sharif was acquitted by court, which means he cannot be tried again. Sharif's attorney Imtiaz Kaifi and a court official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media also confirmed the decision.
Shahbaz Sharif got involved in the murder case in 2001 when the father of two of the victims petitioned the Lahore High Court to have him named as a defendant for allegedly abetting the murders.
The court accepted the petition, and Sharif had been on trial in absentia in an anti-terrorism court since 2001.
He has denied the allegations and spent much of the years since 2000 in exile before returning to Pakistan in November along with his fellow exile and brother Nawaz.
The police had acknowledged killing the five men, but claimed they were suspected robbers who were shot while trying to flee.
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Associated Press reporters Asif Shahzad in Lahore and Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-06-14 05:44 GMT+08:00