Bhutto Blast 224.88.
(photo credit: AP / AAJ TV)
The midnight suicide attack in Pakistan that killed at least 136 people and shattered the homecoming of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto may have been the work of al-Qaida and the Taliban, authorities said Friday, as forensic experts studied the severed head of the alleged bomber to try to determine his identity.
The attack - one of the deadliest in Pakistan's history - bore the hallmarks of terrorists linked to pro-Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud and al-Qaida, according to Ghulam Muhammad Mohtarem, the top security official in Sindh province, where Karachi is located.
He suggested that Bhutto's camp had gotten carried away celebrating her return after eight years in exile, and had not taken the need for security seriously.
"We were already fearing a strike from Mehsud and his local affiliates and this was conveyed to [Bhutto's Pakistan's] People's Party but they got carried away by political exigencies instead of taking our concern seriously," Mohtarem said.
Bhutto survived unscathed, but the back-to-back explosions that went off near a bulletproof truck in which she was riding turned her jubuliant homecoming parade through the city streets into a scene of blood and carnage, ripping victims apart and hurling a fireball into the sky. The attack shattered the windows of her truck. She appeared dazed afterward and was escorted to her Karachi home.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the nation's leader, said he was "deeply shocked" by the attack and "condemned this attack in the strongest possible words. He said this was a conspiracy against democracy," the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan said.
Musharraf appealed for calm, promised an exhaustive investigation and stiff punishment for those responsible, APP reported.
There was no claim of responsibility for the attack, which cast a pall over Bhutto's talks with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and possible plans for a moderate, pro-US alliance. Leaders of her Pakistan People's Party were meeting at her Karachi residence Friday, and Bhutto was expected to hold a news conference afterward.
Mohtarem said nuts and bolts and steel balls packed around the explosives had made the bombing so deadly. He said it was impossible to prevent more such attacks.
Officials at six hospitals in Karachi reported 136 dead and around 250 wounded.
Karachi police chief Azhar Farooqi said that 113 people died, including 20 policemen, and that 300 people were wounded. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the differing death tolls.
Police collected forensic evidence - picking up pieces of flesh and discarded shoes - from the site of the bombing. The truck was hoisted away using a crane. One side of the truck, including a big portrait of the former premier was splattered with blood and riddled with shrapnel holes.
Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said authorities had done everything possible to protect the huge gathering of Bhutto supporters marking her return, but noted that electronic jammers fitted to the police escort vehicles were ineffective against a manually detonated bomb.
On the eve of Bhutto's arrival, a provincial government official had cited intelligence reports that three suicide bombers linked to Mehsud were in Karachi. The local government had also warned Bhutto could be targeted by Taliban or al-Qaida.
Earlier this month, local media reports quoted Mehsud as vowing to greet Bhutto's return to Pakistan with suicide attacks.
Bhutto had flown home Thursday to lead her Pakistan People's Party in January parliamentary elections, drawing cheers from crowds that police put at 150,000.
The throngs reflected Bhutto's enduring political clout, but she has made enemies of Islamic armed groups by taking a pro-US line and negotiating a possible alliance with Musharraf.
It remained unclear what impact the attack could have on reconciliation efforts between the two rivals: whether it could stiffen their resolve to fight terrorism together or strain already bad relations between Bhutto and the ruling party supporting Musharraf.
Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, said on Dawn News television that he suspected that "elements sitting within the government" who would lose out if Bhutto returned to power were involved in the attack.
He didn't elaborate, though Bhutto has accused conservatives in the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party and the security services of secretly supporting religious extremists.
Bhutto had brushed off threats, dismissing authorities' appeals for her to use a helicopter to travel into Karachi to reduce the risk.
"I am not scared. I am thinking of my mission," she had told reporters on the plane from Dubai.
Leaving the airport, Bhutto refused to use a bulletproof glass cubicle that had been built atop the truck taking her toward the tomb of Pakistan's founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. An AP photographer who saw the cubicle of the wrecked truck said it appeared to have shrapnel holes from the bombing.
The former premier had just gone to a downstairs compartment in the truck for a rest when the blast occurred, said Christina Lamb, Bhutto's biographer.
"So she wasn't on top in the open like rest of us, so that just saved her," Lamb told Sky News.
The United States, the United Nations, the European Union, Afghanistan and India were among those who condemned the attack.
"Extremists will not be allowed to stop Pakistanis from selecting their representatives through an open and democratic process," said Gordon Johndroe, foreign affairs spokesman for US President George W. Bush.