TOPICS > Politics

Pakistani Opposition Leader Benazir Bhutto Assassinated

December 27, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Opposition leader and former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed in a gun and bomb attack on Thursday just moments after addressing supporters at a rally in Rawalpindi. A reporter in Pakistan details the events leading to the assassination and the reaction on the Pakistani streets.

JEFFREY BROWN: Benazir Bhutto began her day in Islamabad meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had been in Pakistan on an official visit.

BENAZIR BHUTTO, Former Pakistani Prime Minister: Thank you so much. See you soon.

JEFFREY BROWN: Terrorism had topped the agenda for the meeting, and Bhutto told reporters afterward that the two had agreed to work towards ending extremism should she become prime minister after parliamentary elections scheduled for January 8.

BENAZIR BHUTTO: And we, too, believe that it is essential for us, both of our countries, and indeed the larger Muslim world, to work to protect the interests of the Islamic civilization by eliminating extremism and terrorism.

JEFFREY BROWN: From Islamabad, Bhutto headed about 10 miles south to Rawalpindi, the city where the Pakistan army has its headquarters. There, she staged a campaign rally in the final days before the election. She told the crowd, “I put my life in danger and came here because I feel this country is in danger.”

Afterwards, Bhutto walked to a white vehicle in her caravan, surrounded by aides, supporters and security. This is the last photograph of Bhutto alive, waving to the crowd from the sunroof of her vehicle. Witnesses reported she was fired on at close range by a gunman. Soon after, a bomb exploded. At least 20 people were killed in the blast.

Bhutto was rushed to Rawalpindi General Hospital for surgery as crowds thronged the scene. Later, a member of Bhutto’s party announced that she had been declared dead by doctors at 6:16 p.m. local time.

Nawaz Sharif, the leader of another opposition party and also a former prime minister, had to this to say at the hospital.

NAWAZ SHARIF, Former Pakistani Prime Minister: It is not a sad day. It is the darkest, darkest, gloomiest day in the history of this country. Something unthinkable has happened.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sharif had also been the target of violence earlier in the day. At least four people were killed when his supporters clashed with backers of President Pervez Musharraf in Rawalpindi.

In a phone interview with the BBC, Sharif said President Musharraf’s government had not done enough to protect her and later called for his resignation.

NAWAZ SHARIF: The government should have taken adequate measures and steps to protect Benazir Bhutto. And I think there was a serious lapse in the security that was being provided by the government. I think the government should have really ensured the security and protection of Benazir Bhutto.

JEFFREY BROWN: The attacks took place just 12 days after Musharraf lifted a state of emergency in the country, which had been imposed in November. Hours after Bhutto’s death was confirmed, Musharraf addressed the country and expressed his condolences to her family.

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, Pakistani President (through translator): At this unfortunate incident, in honor of Madam Benazir Bhutto, I am declaring three days of mourning. Our flags will fly at half-mast. This is the work of those terrorists with whom we are engaged in war. I have been saying that the nation faces the greatest threats from these terrorists. Today, after this tragic incident, I want to express my firm resolve. And I also seek solidarity from the nation and cooperation and help. We will not rest until we eliminate these terrorists and root them out.

JEFFREY BROWN: Back in Kabul, Afghan President Karzai paid tribute.

HAMID KARZAI, President of Afghanistan: I have learned with shock that Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of Pakistan and of the Muslim world, has been martyred in an attack of cowardice, of brutality.

JEFFREY BROWN: As news of Bhutto’s death spread, angry supporters took to the streets of Rawalpindi. Violence also broke out in Lahore and Karachi.

Some four hours after Bhutto’s death, her body was carried from the hospital in a white casket, surrounded again by her supporters.

Describing the scene

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more, Jeff talked earlier today with Washington Post correspondent Griff Witte in Islamabad.

JEFFREY BROWN: Griff, what you have learned so far about the attack and how a gunman was able to get so close to Bhutto?

GRIFF WITTE, The Washington Post: The attack occurred as Benazir Bhutto was in a four-by-four vehicle leaving a rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi just south of Islamabad. And she was in the vehicle as it drove away. And she asked her aides to open the moon roof, as she often does, so that she could peer out and wave to the crowd as she left. She went up to put her head above the roof of the vehicle. And, at that point, between three and five shots rang out. It's unclear exactly where they came from.

She came -- she immediately fell back down into the vehicle, and, just at that moment, literally seconds later, a suicide bomber detonated himself right next to her vehicle. It's not clear at the moment how the gunman and the bomber were able to get so close.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, it's not clear yet whether the gunman and the bomber were one and the same?

GRIFF WITTE: It is not clear. There were differing accounts. I spent several hours at the hospital this evening talking to witnesses, people who had survived the attack. And the majority of them said that they believed that the gunman and the bomber were the same person, that someone had come up very close with a pistol and started firing at very close range, and had hit Ms. Bhutto. And then her security forces had jumped on top of him, and that's when he detonated himself.

But her -- her top aides, who were sitting right with her when this attack occurred, said they just didn't know, that they were not sure, and they were still waiting to hear from doctors as far as their assessment of what had happened.

Supporters react to Bhutto death

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you were at the hospital this evening. Describe the scene for us there.

GRIFF WITTE: It was an incredibly chaotic scene. It started with a couple of dozen supporters who showed up, just based on a rumor that she had been wounded in the attack. But no one knew for sure. And, within probably 45 minutes to an hour of their arrival, word came out from the hospital that she had in fact died.

And the response from the crowd was really one of deep despair. People were chanting slogans against Musharraf. They were chanting slogans of, "Long live Bhutto." They were weeping. They were collapsing in grief. They were smashing windows, smashing doors. They were trying -- ultimately, there were thousands and thousands of people at the hospital who were pushing and shoving and trying to get their -- make their way into the hospital, so that they could see Benazir Bhutto for one last time.

JEFFREY BROWN: They were chanting against President Musharraf. You were with many of her supporters. Are they blaming him for this?

GRIFF WITTE: Many of them are. Her top aides are not saying for sure who they think is responsible, but her rank-and-file supporters are absolutely blaming Musharraf and his allies.

They feel that Musharraf and his allies were concerned they would get beaten very badly at the polls next month in elections that are scheduled for January 8, and that essentially they had decided to erase Benazir Bhutto from the political scene because they were concerned that she was a threat to their power.

Musharraf, obviously, has blamed a very different culprit. He says that the -- that those responsible for this attack are Islamic extremists, Taliban, al-Qaida. Obviously, he's not -- not conceding that his people had anything to do with this.

Demonstrations across Pakistan

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there have been reports of protests and demonstrations around the country in the aftermath. What can you tell us about that?

GRIFF WITTE: There have been riots in several cities, in -- in several towns. People are out on the streets burning buses, burning police vehicles. They're throwing rocks. There is a tremendous anger here.

This has been an incredibly tumultuous year for Pakistan. It's been in political turmoil since last March. And it seems as though the crisis only deepens by the day.

There's a lot of frustration out there, people who feel that Musharraf should have been gone long ago. And a lot of people felt that Benazir Bhutto was someone who could effectively -- even out of power. And people are quite upset, quite -- quite disenchanted, and there's a sense out there on the streets tonight that democracy may never come to Pakistan.

Outlook for parliamentary elections

JEFFREY BROWN: And there were also reports of a -- an emergency cabinet meeting of Mr. Musharraf's government. On the agenda, no doubt, was that parliamentary election you mentioned, whether it would go forward or not. Is there any further word on that?

GRIFF WITTE: We don't know for sure tonight. One of the top opposition parties, one led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has announced this evening that it will not take part in the elections, but it will boycott.

But it's unclear whether the elections are going to go ahead as planned. They are supposed to be just under two weeks from now.

But, obviously, the Pakistan's People Party, which is the party that Ms. Bhutto led, is in complete disarray at the moment. It was a party that was very much based around the Bhutto family, led first by Benazir Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and then for the last three decades by Benazir Bhutto. And there's not a clear successor there. It's not clear at all who can lead the Pakistan People's Party from now on. There's no logical choice from within the Bhutto family. And, so, this party is completely without a clear leader at the moment.

And there's also just a very significant potential for greater violence over the coming days and weeks. There's so much anger out there on the streets, and there's such a sense of despair and a sense that perhaps there had been a chance to have a transition toward democracy, but that chance keeps getting pushed further and further away.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Griff Witte of The Washington Post, thank you very much.

GRIFF WITTE: Jeff, thank you.