Bombs shatter Bhutto return

The Baltimore Sun

KARACHI, Pakistan -- Two bombs exploded yesterday seconds apart and feet from a truck carrying opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, narrowly missing her but killing scores of people and bloodying her triumphal homecoming after eight years in exile.

Various reports said 126 were killed and about 150 wounded, including civilians and party workers. In the chaos, however, the Interior Ministry could confirm only 70 deaths.

There were no claims of responsibility.

Bhutto, who had spent eight hours on the roof of the truck waving to supporters, had climbed inside the armored vehicle 10 minutes before the blasts occurred, just before midnight, said Rehman Malik, Bhutto's security adviser and close associate.

She was immediately taken to Bilawal House, her home in Karachi, ending her parade through the city toward the tomb of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.

Bhutto's arrival at 2 p.m. had drawn huge crowds, perhaps 200,000 or more, who danced on the tops of buses and surged forward as she inched her way for hours through her home city.

The strong outpouring provided an emotional homecoming for Bhutto and political vindication of sorts for a woman twice turned out of office as prime minister after being accused of corruption and mismanagement.

It also demonstrated that Bhutto remained a political force in Pakistan, even after her long absence, and marked what supporters and opponents alike agreed was a new political chapter for the nation.

The bomb attack showed it to be a treacherous one as well.

The explosions, caught on camera, gave off brilliant white flashes and set two cars ablaze. Survivors stumbled over bodies and debris in a haze of smoke. It was not immediately clear whether the explosions were caused by suicide bombers.

Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party had fielded 2,000 of its own workers to form rings around their returning leader, guarding her with their numbers and preventing any vehicles or people from approaching.

Before the explosions sundered the celebration, thousands of supporters and workers from her party had lined Bhutto's route, waving banners and surging forward for a glimpse of the opposition leader as she inched her way through the streets.

Bhutto waved as music pumped out from loudspeakers.

The crowd was overwhelmingly working class. Many young men said they were unemployed but had traveled hundreds of miles, paying their own way and camping out overnight on the road to the airport to await her arrival.

In the crowd, Raja Munir Ahmed, 42, a real estate agent, said he had come from Mirpur in a Pakistani-administered part of Kashmir. "It was a journey of 1,500 kilometers and all along we saw buses and cars carrying Peoples Party flags," he said. "People want change. People want to get rid of inflation and unemployment."

Such supporters were among the majority of those killed and wounded. But about 20 were police and law enforcement officials, said Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao. Eight police vans were flanking the truck at the time and the explosions occurred on the left and right sides of the road, he said.

He denied it was a security lapse, saying the crowds and length of the route made it extremely difficult to ensure security.

Earlier, Bhutto was clearly emotional as she took her first steps on Pakistani soil, having lived the past eight years in self-imposed exile in London and Dubai. She left Pakistan to escape corruption charges that she contends were politically motivated.

She climbed down the metal stairs to reach the tarmac, then paused on the bottom step and prayed as friends held a Quran aloft. As an aide embraced her, Bhutto wiped tears from eyes.

"The most important step -- to be back on Pakistani soil," she said, as cameramen swarmed around her.

On the plane from Dubai, supporters broke into repeated cheers and chanting of "Prime Minister Benazir," standing in the aisles and delaying the flight for nearly an hour. Bhutto walked through the cabin to greet supporters and press.

"Very excited, very happy, very proud, a tremendous sense of responsibility as there are so many people at the airport," she said when asked how she felt.

In words that later seemed prescient, she spoke strongly against terrorism and of the need to save Pakistan from extremism through democracy. "The time has come for democracy," she said. "If we want to save Pakistan, we have to have democracy."

She has been outspoken against militants and al-Qaida. "The terrorists are trying to take over my country and we have to stop them," she said.

Bhutto had made clear repeatedly that she was returning to Pakistan to lead her party in the parliamentary elections scheduled for January. If she can win a change in the law, she will run for prime minister for a third time, something now legally barred.

"The people are telling me the bread-and-butter issues are the most important," she said. "They are saying that poverty has increased, the gulf between the rich and poor has increased. They say that people want change. They want a government that listens to them, will respect them and will address the people's issues."

Senior members of the party traveling with Bhutto said the turnout made it clear the people wanted change after eight years of military rule.

"It is unprecedented," said Aftar Rana, a senior party member from Punjab province, looking down at the crowd. "I think we will sweep the elections. People have come from everywhere."

The opposition leader's return was made possible after months of back-channel negotiations with Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, over a way for the two leaders to share power as Pakistan makes a transition from a military government.

Earlier this month, Bhutto's party did not join other opposition parties in boycotting presidential elections by the national and provincial assemblies. The move allowed Musharraf to successfully engineer his re-election, though he still faces legal challenges in the Supreme Court over his eligibility.

For his part, Musharraf issued an amnesty for Bhutto and others accused of corruption in recent years, and he agreed to resign his post as head of the army and serve his next term as a civilian.

But the bombing upon Bhutto's arrival made it clear that, deal or no deal, the country's politics remain exceedingly tense, and dangerous.

The explosions seem certain to add fresh venom to relations between the Pakistan Peoples Party and the government.

Musharraf, according to a statement released by state media, condemned the attack "in the strongest possible words" as "a conspiracy against democracy."

The Bush administration, which has backed Musharraf, noted his condemnation of the attack, as the State Department issued a statement saying, "Those responsible seek only to foster fear and limit freedom."

Bhutto earlier said in the interview atop the truck that she was concerned about her security and that she had told Musharraf that she suspected people in his administration and the security forces of supporting the militants and terrorism.

"This is not the same Pakistan it was in 1996 when my government was overthrown," she said. "The militants have risen in power. But I know who these people are, I know the forces behind them, and I have written to General Musharraf about this. And I've told him there are certain people I suspect in the administration and security.

"Unless there is some thought given to that, this is what emboldens the militants," she said. ''They've got some covert support from sympathizers within the system."

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