Anj — Benazir assassination attempt: From carnival to carnage

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Benazir assassination attempt: From carnival to carnage
Beena Sarwar
KARACHI: “Jaanisar-e-Benazir” – ready to die for Benazir – proclaimed
the white t-shirts of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party workers responsible
for security around the welcome convoy of former Prime Minister
Benazir Bhutto when she returned to Pakistan on Oct 18 after almost
nine years of self-exile.
The convoy took around nine hours to cover the eight kilometers from
Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport to the Karsaz Road
intersection. Thronged by thousands of jubilant but peaceful
supporters, most of them on foot, Bhutto’s 20-foot armoured truck
flanked by a heavy police escort barely moved at snail’s pace. It
carried on its rooftop the entire top leadership of the PPP, who had
insisted on joining Bhutto there despite the misgivings of her
security advisor Rehman Malik, a former intelligence chief.
The security nightmare this scenario presented became a reality soon
after midnight. Two loud explosions, one after another, targeted
Bhutto’s truck as it inched ahead. PPP workers and police showed
presence of mind in quickly evacuating the unharmed PPP Chairperson
and hurrying off to her Karachi residence, Bilawal House.
Addressing a press conference the following day, Bhutto acknowledged
that after the first explosion, instead of running away and saving
themselves her `Jaanisars’ courageously surrounded the truck,
deflecting a direct hit by a second attacker.
One explosion set fire to a police van next to the truck. Flames
shooting up into the darkness illuminated the scene of carnage,
corpses and scattered limbs around. Several policemen were killed on
the spot, along with a television cameraman and some fifty Jaanisars.
The initial casualties of a few dozen quickly mounted as victims
succumbed to their injuries. With a death toll of over 140 dead and
500 injured this is the worst such incident in Pakistan’s history.
“We had been expecting an attack, but not on such a large scale,”
Bhutto’s spokesperson Senator Farhatullah Babar told this
correspondent after a chaotic, crowded press conference at Bilawal
House the next day. “We were not sure to what extent we should expose
her, but given the crowd that had turned out, her visibility at the
front of the truck rather than behind the bullet-proof glass or
inside the vehicle, was a minimum for the people.”
However, even some sympathizers feel that better planning would have
prevented the carnage, particularly since the threat to Bhutto was
well known. President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, as well as several of
his political allies had been warning Bhutto of such an attack while
she was still abroad.
Sadiq Khan, a retired businessman, thinks that the PPP should have
organized to get Bhutto back to Bilawal House before dark. “They
should have made sure that her truck was right in front and led the
pace, instead of moving so slowly,” he said, “particularly since they
were warned that they would be attacked.”
Non-sympathisers are less kind. “It’s just an ego trip,” says Hina
Arif, a hairdresser, criticizing Bhutto for not using the helicopter
Babar, the PPP spokesperson, insists that the expectations of three
million or so people who swarmed to Karachi from all over the country
made any other option impossible.
Bhutto had somewhat naively dismissed the threats, holding that “no
true Muslim” would attack her because Muslims are forbidden to attack
women and innocent people, and are also prohibited from suicide
attacks. Those who carried out Thursday’s attacks, she said at the
press conference, “are not Muslims”.
The attacks triggered off a spate of accusations, counter accusations
and conspiracy theories. Bhutto herself initially blamed the legacy
of Gen. Ziaul Haq, the military dictator who hanged her father. The
attackers, she said at the press conference, were “part of the
militant minority that does not enjoy the support of the people… They
are saying that it is not safe for peaceful people to gather, it is
only safe for the militants to gather, because the peaceful people
will not attack them.”
Bhutto also hinted at the involvement of Pakistan’s intelligence
agencies in the attacks, citing three men whose names she refused to
divulge, but whom she has named in a letter of Oct 16 to
Musharraf. “I said that if something happens to me, I will hold them
responsible rather than militant groups like the Taliban, Al Qaeda or
the Pakistani Taliban,” she elaborated.
Significantly, her party has demanded the removal of the Intelligence
Bureau chief, Ijaz Shah. Pakistan’s intelligence agencies have long
been linked with militancy in the country.
Political observers note that those who stand most to lose from
Bhutto’s arrival are the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q) and
the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). However, the top leadership of
both parties promptly called Bhutto to condole with her “Naming other
political parties is just a red herring,” said Bhutto, again
referring to the mysterious three names she has provided to
President Gen. Musharraf gains politically from Bhutto’s arrival
since the `deal’ he has struck with her as their alliance allows him
to remain active in Pakistani politics. Not surprisingly, he was
among the first to call and condole with the PPP leader he once loved
to hate. Like Bhutto, he has termed the attacks as a “conspiracy
against democracy”.
PPP has not yet decided how to pursue the issue of the attacks. “We
are still deciding whether to register a police case, or ask for an
inquiry by a Supreme Court judge or a parliamentary inquiry,” says
Farhatullah Bahar.
He admits that inquiries and police cases have not yielded any
results in the past, even in cases as high profile as the
assassination of the country’s first Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan
in 1951, the mid-air explosion that killed Gen. Ziaul Haq in 1988,
and the murder of Benazir’s own brother Mir Murtaza Bhutto during
a `police encounter’ in 1993. Although Bhutto herself was Prime
Minister when Murtaza was killed, no headway was ever made in his
murder case either.
Whether or not those responsible for Thursday’s tragedy are ever
identified, this first such assassination attempt on the top
leadership of a popular political party is likely to further
negatively impact democratic politics in Pakistan.