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Deadly Blasts Disturb Bhutto’s Pakistan Homecoming

October 18, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT
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JONATHAN RUGMAN, ITV News Correspondent: She was twice deposed as the Islamic world’s first elected woman prime minister. She fled her country eight years ago on corruption charges. But today, with the holy Koran dangled above her, the great survivor of Pakistani politics was home.

And with her, tears at Karachi Airport, a touch of political theatre, this prodigal daughter pledging to lead 140 million people to the promised land of democracy, and clearly overwhelmed by the task.

BENAZIR BHUTTO, Former Pakistani Prime Minister: I feel very, very emotional coming back to my country. I’ve dreamt of this day for so many months and years. I counted the hours. I counted the minutes and the seconds just to see this land, to see the grass, to see the sky.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Her cavalcade was besieged by supporters in this, her political heartland. Her journey home from the airport expected to take more than 10 hours, so long that she fiddled with her BlackBerry at times, seemingly oblivious to the crowd.

But tens of thousands of Pakistani security forces are on high alert here. The Taliban and other extremist groups have threatened to kill her. But this hated symbol of modernity is refusing to stay behind bulletproof glass.

Her father was hanged by the generals. Two of her brothers died in mysterious circumstances. Al-Qaida has tried to kill her at least twice. Yet Benazir Bhutto is back in Pakistan after eight years of self-imposed exile.

This morning, aboard Mrs. Bhutto’s plane from Dubai, her party officials could not contain their delight, so many surging forward that, at first, the pilot refused to take off.

Yet Mrs. Bhutto, with her Western ways, her Harvard and Oxford degrees, is a divisive figure. No luggage was allowed in hold in case it was sabotaged. So with fewer than 10 minutes to landing, and those charges of corruption still hanging in the air, I asked her how she felt.

Are you frightened?

BENAZIR BHUTTO, Former Pakistani Prime Minister: No, I’m not frightened. I’ve put my faith in God and my faith in the hands of the people of Pakistan. And I’m very focused on what needs to be done. And I really feel so encouraged that such large numbers of people have come and voted with their feet for a moderate Pakistan.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Your last government was dismissed amid allegations of corruption. Are you going to assure us and the people of Pakistan that, if you become prime minister again, this time it will be different?

BENAZIR BHUTTO: Well, I do think that a truth and reconciliation commission is important to go into this. I’m very strongly against corruption. But, unfortunately, anti-corruption laws have been used to crush the political opposition.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: So you’re saying that you were accused of things you didn’t do?

BENAZIR BHUTTO: I’m saying that, unless the constitution of Pakistan is changed, every other prime minister will also be set up for failure and dismissed with charges of corruption, just like Prime Minister Jamali, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and the…

JONATHAN RUGMAN: And Prime Minister Bhutto.

BENAZIR BHUTTO: … that’s right, and the chief justice of Pakistan. So I feel that we must have a transparent government, and I will do everything for transparency. But at the same time, we need a balance of power between the president and the prime minister to ensure that the people’s verdict is not overturned through trumped-up charges.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Do you want Musharraf to go?

PAKISTANI PROTESTOR: Yeah, we want Musharraf to go.

PAKISTANI PROTESTOR: We want Musharraf to go.

PAKISTANI PROTESTOR: Must go. We don’t want. We want Benazir Bhutto.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Yet for all that, she’s struck a deal with President Musharraf. He can stay on, if she can run for prime minister.

Investigation of the bombing scene

Steve Coll
The New Yorker
About 100 or more dead and an estimated 200 or more wounded. Police and investigators are examining the site of what appear to have been two blasts carried out by dismounted suicide bombers.

JIM LEHRER: Now, to the violence that followed the return, and to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: And New Yorker magazine journalist and author Steve Coll also accompanied Mrs. Bhutto home, and he joins us by phone now from Karachi.

Steve, you just came from the scene. What's the latest?

STEVE COLL, Staff Writer, The New Yorker: About 100 or more dead and an estimated 200 or more wounded. Police and investigators are examining the site of what appear to have been two blasts carried out by dismounted suicide bombers. There was also evidence at the scene that rifle shots might have been fired at the truck that Benazir Bhutto was riding in at some time around the detonation of these two suicide bombs.

MARGARET WARNER: So how close did the bomb blasts come to Bhutto herself? Where was she when they went off?

STEVE COLL: Well, you've probably seen the pictures. She was riding in what was essentially a sort of three-story modified truck with a platform on top. The platform had a sort of VIP seat in the front, which was like a first-class airliner seat. And surrounding that on three sides was bulletproof glass.

This vehicle moved very slowly through a sea of Pakistan People's Party activists and other onlookers. And the first of the two blasts appeared to have been detonated about 10 to 20 yards behind and to the left of the vehicle.

I just came from Mrs. Bhutto's house, and one of her senior aides said as she was coming out that she believed that Mrs. Bhutto was actually in the rear of the vehicle at the time of the explosion, reviewing her speech that she intended to make at the end of her journey.

But I climbed up into the bus, which is disabled and now sitting in the street, and looked at this bulletproof glass. And while I'm not a forensic scientist, there seemed to be evidence of four gunshots into the glass from the same side of the vehicle that the bombs had gone off.

Limited protection for Bhutto

MARGARET WARNER: So do authorities there have any doubt that she was the target of this attack?

STEVE COLL: No, it would seem clear that she was the target of the attack, though the bombers weren't potent enough to destroy the vehicle that she was in from the distance that they detonated.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what kind of protection did she have? There was one account that said she was rushed from the scene under a contingency plan. Who was actually protecting her?

STEVE COLL: There were a dozen or more police Jeeps, some with mounted guns. There was a bomb disposal squad Jeep with the letters "Bomb Disposal Squad" painted on the side. Those police vehicles flagged them and fronted and took up the rear of her mounted truck.

But the great majority of the security was provided by civilian activists in her own party. There was not a heavy presence of uniformed police on this procession route at all. And, in fact, access to and from the vehicle route was entirely open throughout the day and evening.

Threats may be linked to al-Qaida

Steve Coll
The New Yorker
This reinforces in their mind the theme of her campaign, which is her attempt to build a moderate -- rebuild a moderate center in Pakistan and to join the struggle against extremism.

MARGARET WARNER: And then who and where did the threats against her come from? And are authorities ready to say they were, in fact, the perpetrators in some fashion of this attack?

STEVE COLL: Well, there's nothing but speculation available now, but this attack is really consistent with dozens of similar attacks mounted by Taliban-influenced, or Taliban-allied, or al-Qaida-allied militant groups in Pakistan.

They are most active these days in the northwest and western frontier of the country, but increasingly they have been coming down to the cities and carrying out attacks against targets such as army units, civilian units, and also police, and apparently today against Benazir Bhutto.

MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, what are her people saying about what this attack, what impact it's going to have on her ability or the way she goes about now leading her party in this campaign for the legislative elections coming up in January?

STEVE COLL: Well, I think they're saying two things. Tactically, it obviously will require them to reassess the style of campaigning and the security arrangements surrounding public appearances.

But more broadly, this reinforces in their mind the theme of her campaign, which is her attempt to build a moderate -- rebuild a moderate center in Pakistan and to join the struggle against extremism. Their theme, at least to Western audiences, is that she is a strong potential partner in the reconstruction of a more moderate, modernizing Pakistan.

And today's events, given that she survived them, just draw a line under that assertion.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Steve Coll of the New Yorker, thank you so much.

STEVE COLL: My pleasure, Margaret.