Benazir Bhutto, Pakistani Opposition Leader, Killed Amid Suicide Bombing

Former prime minister was reportedly shot before explosion, which killed 22 others; her body is to be buried Friday.

Just months after returning to Pakistan with hopes of assuming the leadership of the country for a third time, opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was killed on Thursday (December 27) during a suicide attack at a campaign rally in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, according to CNN. Her body was reportedly being flown home Friday and expected to be buried later that day in Gari-Khuda Baksh in the province of Sindh.

The former prime minister of the country was attacked by an unknown bomber, who also killed 22 of Bhutto’s supporters. According to CNN, the Interior Ministry said Bhutto died from a shot in the neck before the explosion. Eyewitnesses told CNN that Bhutto was alive when she arrived at a local hospital and that she appeared to have gunshot wounds to the chest and neck. Footage shown on Fox News from the hospital in the aftermath of the assassination depicted a scene of chaos, with agitated groups of men, some armed with machine guns, pushing and shoving each other in the hallways.

In the wake of Bhutto’s murder, speculation immediately focused on radical Islamic factions that have been critical of her drive for a more democratic Pakistan. CNN correspondents also noted that the bombing occurred close to the mountainous region that is believed to be the current hideout of al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden and his top deputies. Just hours after the explosion there were reports of sporadic rioting in several major cities around Pakistan, which reportedly took the lives of six people at press time.

An investment banker in Karachi spoke with CNN via telephone about the angry mobs who had taken to the streets. “It’s all mayhem everywhere,” Shehryar Ahmad reportedly said. “There’s absolutely no order of any kind. No army on the streets. No curfew.” Unrest was also reported in Khairpur and Peshawar.

Just moments before the bombing, video of the rally showed Bhutto stepping into a heavily armored vehicle to leave a gathering in support of her campaign. It is believed that an attacker wearing a bomb belt detonated explosives as he entered the rally on a bicycle or motorcycle and struck Bhutto’s vehicle, just moments after a sniper had hit Bhutto in the head from a nearby building, according to The New York Times. Conflicting reports said a single assassin opening fire on Bhutto and her entourage and striking her at least once in the neck and chest before blowing himself up.

In advance of the country’s January 8 elections, thousands had gathered to hear Bhutto give a speech that specifically demonized the radical Islamic leaders who she said were driving the country off the course of democratic rule. It was the second deadly attack on one of the country’s former leaders, coming less than a week after four supporters of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif were killed when members of another political party opened fire on them at a rally near the Islamabad airport Friday. The Times reported that doctors tried to revive Bhutto for 35 minutes, but that she had shrapnel wounds and head injuries and was in heart failure.

The bombing was the second such attempt on Bhutto’s life since she returned to the country in October, following eight years of self-imposed exile. In an October 18 attack, at least 136 people were killed and more than 380 wounded when a suicide bomber attacked a slow-moving motorcade that was making its way through a huge crowd that had gathered to show support for Bhutto’s return to the country.

In 1988, Bhutto, 54 — the mother of three teenage children — was the first woman to be elected to lead a post-colonial era Muslim state, but was removed from office less than 20 months later amid charges of corruption. She was re-elected in 1993, but forced out once again in 1996 after similar corruption charges surfaced. She left Pakistan and went into exile in Dubai in 1998 and had remained there until her triumphant return to Pakistan in October, after current Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf granted her amnesty. Her murder is the latest tragedy to befall the Bhutto family, whose history includes the 1979 hanging of her father, the country’s former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; the suspicious killing of her brother Shahnawaz in France in 1980; and the murder of another brother, Mir Murtaza, in 1996.

According to CNN, despite the continuing threat of violence against her, Bhutto remained determined to hold rallies among her supporters and be seen in public less than two weeks before the January parliamentary elections. Bhutto had gained the support of the Bush administration for her determination to bring democratic rule to nuclear-armed Pakistan in light of recent actions by Musharraf, including suspending the country’s constitution, firing many judges and declaring a state of emergency six weeks ago, which he lifted just days ago.

Along with most of the current American presidential candidates of both parties, President Bush issued a strong statement condemning the assassination. “The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan’s democracy,” Bush said from his ranch in Crawford, Texas. “Those who committed this crime must be brought to justice.” Bush said Bhutto was aware that her return to Pakistan earlier this year put her life at risk, “yet she refused to allow assassins to dictate the course of her country.” He vowed to continue supporting Pakistan in its battle against extremism, saying he would do all he could to support the “democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life.”

President Musharraf — who has survived nine failed attempts on his life — declared a three-day national mourning period. A top aide to Musharraf told the Times that no decision had been made over whether to delay January’s parliamentary elections, which many had predicted would have resulted in Bhutto’s re-election as prime minister.

[This story was originally published at 10:24 am E.T. on 12.27.2007]

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