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Blame game begins amid fury

Perhaps attempting to deflate her legacy as a martyr for democracy, Islamabad says former prime minister was not shot - but instead smashed her skull on SUV sunroof

Special to The Globe and Mail

LARKANA, PAKISTAN ? The Pakistani government was accused of a cover-up yesterday after saying Benazir Bhutto died from hitting her head and wasn't shot or hit by shrapnel in the suicide attack it blamed on al-Qaeda.

As the two-time former prime minister was buried, violence erupted across Pakistan, with gun battles raging in major cities, and buildings and cars torched by angry supporters of her Pakistan People's Party.

But instead of an assassin's bullet, the Interior Ministry said, Ms. Bhutto was thrown against the lever of her car's sunroof by the force of the suicide blast, fatally shattering her skull after she emerged from the top of the armoured SUV to wave to the crowds upon leaving a campaign rally. As evidence, they produced a photo of the bloodied lever.

"That is a false claim," countered Babar Awan, a senior People's Party official. He said he saw her body after the attack and there were at least two bullet wounds, one in the neck and one on the top of the head.

"It was a targeted, planned killing," he said. "The firing was from more than one side."

Instead of pronouncing her assassinated, the latest official account gives her a much more prosaic end. Cynics suggested it was an attempt to rein in the legend that has already sprung up of Ms. Bhutto as a martyr for democracy. Others say it's an effort to blunt criticism she wasn't adequately protected.

Just 24 hours earlier, the government had been putting forward a different account that also contradicted the People's Party version of events. It had said Ms. Bhutto was not killed by gunfire, but by flying shrapnel from the blast.

But nearly all eyewitnesses and accounts by people travelling in her vehicle agree she was first shot and had slumped back into the jeep when the blast occurred.

Amateur video released yesterday shows a gunman firing at least three shots at Ms. Bhutto followed by a huge blast, but the government says the gunman missed.

The doctors at the hospital told journalists and People's Party leaders that she had died as a result of a bullet wound to the neck. Some of the doctors apparently later changed their stories.

While presenting the sunroof explanation, officials also came forward with what they said was evidence that a Taliban militant linked to al-Qaeda ordered the assassination.

"We have intelligence intercepts indicating that al-Qaeda leader Baitullah Mehsud is behind her assassination," said Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema.

Mr. Mehsud is a tribal chief in the Waziristan region, on the border with Afghanistan, and the leader of Pakistan's homegrown version of the Taliban. He is said to be close to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who is an ally of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

According to a transcript released of a conversation between Mr. Mehsud and an unidentified religious cleric, the tribal chief conveyed his congratulations for the attack.

"It was a spectacular job. They were very brave boys who killed her," Mr. Mehsud said, according to the transcript, on being told by the cleric that three of his men were behind the assassination.

Ms. Bhutto was sent to her grave yesterday without autopsy. Her body was flown immediately from the hospital, in a sealed coffin, to the burial. So the truth of government assertion that she died in an extraordinary accident will probably never be known.

Mohammadmian Soomro, the caretaker prime minister of Pakistan, told the cabinet that Ms. Bhutto's husband, Asif Zardari, had insisted on no autopsy.

But in a case of this nature, an autopsy is mandatory under the criminal law of Pakistan, according to leading lawyer Athar Minallah - and it is the state's responsibility.

"It is absurd, because without autopsy it is not possible to investigate," he said.

Firefighters also cleaned the scene of the attack in Rawalpindi with high-pressure hoses within an hour, washing evidence away.

Pakistan has a long history of inadequately investigating controversial deaths. In 1979, Ms. Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hurriedly buried in the same family tomb, under strict army supervision. No autopsy was carried out despite claims that he was tortured to death, not hanged as ordered by a court.

In 1988, when General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan's then military dictator, died in a mysterious plane crash, his remains were never given over for examination.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan, already unstable before Ms. Bhutto's death, was last night looking dangerously like it could slide toward civil war.

In her home province of Sindh, army troops had to be deployed to try to quell protests. They had orders of shoot-to-kill. Officials said 31 people, including four policemen, had died since Ms. Bhutto's assassination in related violence.

Separately, in a suspected Islamic militant attack in the northwestern Swat valley, where the army has been fighting pro-Taliban forces, a blast at an election rally killed six. It was a local meeting of the political party that supports Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and among the dead was the election candidate.

Transcript of purported conversation

The following is a transcript released by the Pakistani government yesterday of a purported conversation between militant leader Baitullah Mehsud, who is referred to as Emir Sahib, and another man identified as a Maulvi Sahib, or Mr. Cleric. The government alleges the intercepted conversation proves al-Qaeda was behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto:

Maulvi Sahib: Peace be on you.

Mehsud: Peace be on you, too.

Maulvi Sahib: How are you Emir Sahib?

Mehsud: Fine.

Maulvi Sahib: Congratulations. I arrived now tonight.

Mehsud: Congratulations to you, too.

Maulvi Sahib: They were our men there.

Mehsud: Who were they?

Maulvi Sahib : There were Saeed, the second was Badarwala Bilal and Ikramullah was also there.

Mehsud: The three did it?

Maulvi Sahib: Ikramullah and Bilal did it.

Mehsud: Then congratulations to you again.

Maulvi: Where are you? I want to meet with you.

Mehsud: I am in Makin. Come, I am at Anwar Shah's home.

Maulvi Sahib: Okay, I will come.

Mehsud: Do not inform their family presently.

Maulvi Sahib: Right.

Mehsud: It was a spectacular job. They were very brave boys who killed her.

Maulvi Sahib: Praise be to God. I will give you more details when I come.

Mehsud: I will wait for you. Congratulations once again.

Maulvi Sahib: Congratulations to you as well.

Mehsud: Anything I can do for you?

Maulvi: Thank you very much.

Mehsud: Peace be on you.

Maulvi: Same to you.

Associated Press

Profile of an accused

Pakistani authorities have accused Baitullah Mehsud of ordering the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. He has a long history of attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and was recently named leader of Tehrik Taliban-i-Pakistan, a new coalition of militants from in and around Pakistan's lawless tribal areas. Although he was described as an al-Qaeda militant and he is certainly inspired by Osama bin Laden, he's more closely aligned with the Taliban.

Age: Early 30s, born in Landidog, a small tribal village on the fringes of Pakistan's South Waziristan province;

Did not finish regular or religious schooling, but began in the mid-1990s to make frequent trips to Afghanistan to help the fledgling Taliban government enforce Islamic law;

As a traditional tribal man, he is an expert at using small arms. He's said to be an inspiring leader.

He has sworn allegiance to Afghan Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar, who made him governor of the Mehsud tribe in a ceremony attended by top Taliban leaders

Like Mullah Omar, there are few if any photos of him, he doesn't give interviews, and he moves from hideout to hideout.

His army of some 20,000 men are the de facto law in Waziristan, settling disputes, and meting out punishment for perceived transgressions of Islam.

It is said he's ruthless against perceived informers. If he confirms someone has betrayed him, he sends them a 1,000 rupee bill and a thread and needle, with a note giving them 24 hours to have their death shroud sewn.

After several clashes with the Pakistan military, he signed a truce in February of 2005, pledging not to harbour al-Qaeda militants or attack within Pakistan.

The peace didn't last long, and in September of this year he held 200 Pakistani soldiers hostage until the government released some of his Taliban confreres.

When Ms. Bhutto announced her return to Pakistan, he's reported to have said he would welcome her with suicide bombers, and is the chief suspect in the deadly suicide attack at the rally upon her return.

Sources: The Jamestown Foundation, Reddiff News

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