Bhutto’s Party Rejects Al-Qaeda Claim as Riots Spread

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Dec. 29 (Bloomberg) — The Pakistan Peoples Party rejected government claims that a Taliban commander linked to al-Qaeda was behind the assassination of its leader Benazir Bhutto, as the death toll from rioting rose to 38.

”The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.
—Genesis 6:11

Baitullah Mehsud, a Pakistani Taliban commander linked to al-Qaeda, is suspected of plotting the Dec. 27 suicide attack that killed Bhutto, the Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema told reporters yesterday. Mehsud denied the claim, Agence France-Presse reported, citing a spokesman.

The former prime minister’s assassination has deepened the turmoil in Pakistan, a key ally U.S. in the war on terrorism, less than two weeks before elections, which the government still intends to hold on Jan. 8. Rioting spread overnight as Bhutto supporters took to the streets, burning offices, shops and buses.

The government “is trying to divert the investigations into Bhutto’s killing,” Farhatullah Babar, her spokesman, said in a phone interview today. “Mehsud had already denied he planned to assassinate Bhutto.”

Cheema cited a taped conversation of the Taliban leader, in which he congratulates a friend for Bhutto’s death. “Very brave boys” took part in the assault, Mehsud said, according to a government transcript of the tape.

`No Involvement’

“We had no involvement in this attack,” AFP cited Maulana Omar, a spokesman for Mehsud, as saying. “We express our deep grief and shock over her death.”

The long-term impact of the assassination may depend on who was responsible for it, Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in a report Dec. 27.

If the culprit was al-Qaeda, the Taliban or another Islamic extremist group, that could have unifying effect and “direct anger towards the forces doing most to drive Pakistan apart and threaten Afghanistan,” Cordesman wrote. If the killers were a Pakistani sect or ethnic group, “it could be far more divisive.”

The party will name Bhutto’s successor tomorrow and may also decide on whether to participate in the elections or call for postponement, AAJ television channel reported, citing Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari. Bhutto has named a successor in her will, Zardari said.

Leader Buried

Cheema said Mehsud was also behind the Oct. 19 assassination attempt on Bhutto when she held a public rally in Karachi after arriving in Pakistan from exile. The assassination attempt left 136 other people dead.

“If the government had accepted our demand of holding an independent inquiry by overseas experts into the Oct. 19 bombing on Bhutto, this would not have happened,” Babar said.

Bhutto was buried yesterday in the family mausoleum in Garhi Khuda Baksh, in the southern province of Sindh, about 480 kilometers (298 miles) north of the commercial capital, Karachi, as troops were sent to quell riots across Pakistan.

Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister and Bhutto’s political rival, arrived today at Bhutto’s house outside Larkana city to condole with Zardari and their three children, according to AAJ television. The broadcaster showed footage of Sharif’s arrival as hundreds of Bhutto supporters welcomed him.

Riot Deaths

At least 38 people have been killed and another 53 injured in two days of rioting across the south Asian country, Cheema told reporters today. Angry mobs put as many as 174 banks, 370 cars and 765 shops on fire in several cities, he said. Trains and stations were also damaged.

Army and rangers have been deployed in Karachi and other parts of Sindh province to quell the riots, Interior Ministry spokesman Cheema said. The stock market and the central bank remain closed.

The government has announced three days of mourning and ordered a judicial inquiry into Bhutto’s killing as businesses and offices were shut down in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and garrison city of Rawalpindi. The streets of Karachi remain deserted today with shops and petrol stations closed.

The 54-year-old opposition leader was standing in the open sunroof of her blast-proof, bullet-proof car as she came out of the venue after addressing a public rally in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad. She ducked into the car, possibly to escape gunshots that preceded the bomb blast or because she was thrown off balance by the explosion.

Bhutto’s Wounds

Bhutto’s head hit the sunroof’s lever, causing a fatal skull fracture, Cheema said. She wasn’t hit by a bullet, nor by shrapnel, he said.

“The doctors told us that Bhutto died of two bullet wounds,” Bhutto’s spokesman Babar said. Another spokeswoman, Sherry Rehman, said she was with Bhutto when the attack happened and saw the bullet wounds when she bathed the body before burial, according to AFP.

No autopsy was performed on her body beyond an external examination by doctors, Cheema said yesterday.

Other political leaders, including former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, are also at risk and must heed the government’s security advice, Cheema said in the capital, Islamabad.

Pakistan’s election arrangements have been “adversely affected” by riots that erupted after the assassination, according to the Election Commission, the agency in charge of supervising the Jan. 8 national ballot.

Poll Participation

“The law and order situation in the country has deteriorated,” according to a statement released today by the agency in capital Islamabad. The agency, whose offices in the Sindh province were set on fire, will meet on Dec. 31 to review the security situation.

Elections will be held as scheduled, Interim Prime Minister Mohammedmian Soomro yesterday said. “Any decision on a possible postponement” will be discussed with political parties, he told reporters in Islamabad.

Musharraf allowed Bhutto to return to Pakistan to participate in the elections. She had lived in Dubai and London since 1999 after being charged in Pakistan with taking kickbacks on state contracts. She wasn’t convicted on the charges.

Former Prime Minister Sharif said his opposition party will boycott next month’s national elections, and called on Musharraf to quit as the nation’s leader.

Boycott Threat

“Under the present circumstances and under Musharraf, neither is campaigning possible nor is a free election,” Sharif said on Dec. 27.

The New York Times reported today that Sharif blamed Musharraf for pulling Pakistan into the crisis which resulted in Bhutto’s assassination. “His policies are responsible,” the New York Times cited Sharif as saying in an interview on a plane taking him to Bhutto’s ancestral village. “An independent commission will have to investigate.”

President George W. Bush asked Pakistanis “to honor Benazir Bhutto’s memory by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Khalid Qayum in Islamabad at kqayum@bloomberg.net .

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