The Assassination of Benazir Bhutto
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Benazir Bhutto, a two time former Prime Minister of Pakistan, and one of the leading voices of democratization, was assassinated in a suicide bombing in Rawalpindi, a garrison city near the capital, Islamabad. She was departing a political rally with her closest political advisors, in preparation of the January elections. Approximately thirty other people were killed. Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the killing.
Details about the attack are slowly coming via Pakistani media. The bomber is described as a lone-individual who, before exploding himself, opened fire on Benazir's van. Pakistani officials have confirmed (to the BBC) that she was killed by a gun-shot to the neck. In fact, Pakistan's GEO-TV is currently panning to a picture of a handgun sitting (found quite miraculously) amidst the debris, presumably the one that killed Ms. Bhutto. However, some journalists are uncertain whether it was a gun shot, or pellets from the bomb, that killed her.
The jeep that Bhutto was traveling in, was armored and bullet-proof. However, tragically, at the moment of the attack, she had been standing with her head out of the sunroof, waving to supporters.
This was the second suicide bombing directly targeting Benazir since her return to Pakistan in October. The first, that targeted her at a rally in Karachi, killed more than 150 people. Prior to the first bombing, Pakistan's Daily Times wrote an editorial discussing Bhutto's fingering of people who had threatened her. This included Pakistan's highest Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud. The Daily Times editorial suggested there may be a connection between Mehsud and individuals in Pakistani military. In the aftermath of Bhutto's killing it would behoove international observers to see what kind of arrests and investigation, if any, President Musharraf engages in.
Bhutto was the leading democratic figure in Pakistan and head of Pakistan's People's Party. Her death, according to private intelligence agency, Stratfor, deals a crushing blow to the PPP's chances in the forthcoming elections. Her primary democratic opponent, Nawaz Sharif, himself a former Prime Minister (removed by Musharraf in 1999), had recently become on good terms with Bhutto. Together the two of them had signed a charter for democracy. The Washington Post has reported that a rally for Nawaz Sharif was targeted by a sniper, killing four. A quite frazzled looking Sharif called today the "saddest day in Pakistan's history." If the PPP suffers from disarray, the next two largest parties are the two different branches of Pakistan's Muslim League (Q & N). Q is affiliated with Musharraf, and N is affiliated with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Unrest has already begun across the country. I am told that a train has been put to fire and explosions have been heard around Karachi -- hundreds of cars are already on fire. Riots are spreading to the populous Punjab province. The Army Rangers have been deployed in various areas.
Irrespective of one's views on Bhutto -- mine were mostly negative -- she was the primary secular-minded democratic leader of Pakistan. She had made statements about hunting Bin Laden, eradicating the pernicious madrassa system, as well as apologizing for allowing the Taliban to acquire power during her watch in the mid 90's. Her killing is a huge blow to the anti-extremist movement in Pakistan. Frankly, as it stands now, there are no other anti-extremist democratic leaders in Pakistan.
If this assassination is indeed the doing of elements connected to Taliban or Al-Qaeda, it would be the most prominent political assassination by the group. Bhutto was the first woman to be elected leader of a Muslim country.
President Musharraf is now on TV and says that this attack is caused by "those terrorists with whom we're at war." He is asking for Pakistan to "uproot terrorism and toss it aside." He calls terrorism the biggest obstacle to our progress." Further, he is appealing to Pakistanis to remain calm.
Ali Eteraz is an international finance and human rights lawyer.