By Muhammad Najeeb, IANS
Islamabad : Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, an iconic symbol of Pakistan, was assassinated in nearby Rawalpindi Thursday moments after a suicide bomber blew up at an election rally killing 30 people and a gunman fired at her, hitting her in the neck and head.
In a brazen terror attack that stunned the world and plunged Pakistan in turmoil, Bhutto, who returned to her country only two months ago after eight years in exile, was declared dead at the Rawalpindi General Hospital where she was rushed badly bleeding, leaders of her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) said.
The meticulously planned killing plunged Pakistan – the world’s only nuclear-armed Islamic country – into sorrow and anger. Street violence erupted all over the country, the people’s fury over the death of the courageous 54-year-old politician directed at President Pervez Musharraf and his military.
PPP leaders, who broke down when they were told about her death and began to smash and break the doors and windows of the hospital, said the two time prime minister breathed her last at 6.16 p.m.
“She has been martyred,” said a weeping party official Rehman Malik. Bhutto leaves behind her husband Asif Zardari and three children.
The scene at the election rally presented a gory site, with dismembered bodies strewn at an open ground at Liaqat Bagh area of Rawalpindi, a garrison city adjoining Islamabad. Ambulances with screaming sirens rushed the badly wounded and the dying to hospitals.
Even two hours after the gory outburst of violence, there were conflicting versions as to how exactly Bhutto died. Some party members insisted that it was the suicide bomber who claimed her life.
But a sobbing PPP Information Secretary Farhatullah Babar, who was at the same rally, told IANS that as Bhutto climbed down from the stage after addressing the rally and boarded her bullet proof jeep, there were two massive blasts some 100 meters away, killing up to 30 people.
On hearing the explosions, a worried Bhutto came out of the vehicle to see what had happened when someone fired several shots from a nearby building, two of the bullets hitting her in the neck and head.
Her close associates, political secretary Naheed Khan and information secretary Sherry Rehman, were in critical condition.
The news stunned Pakistan, a country reeling under waves of terrorist attacks blamed on Islamic radicals. Tens of thousands of furious Pakistanis took to the streets in all major cities, attacking and burning government vehicles and gas stations and blockading roads with burning tires.
Shopkeepers all across the country hurried downed their shutters.
The death of Bhutto – who was often seen as a divisive force, more so after she returned to Pakistan with a power-sharing pact with President Pervez Musharraf – ended up uniting the country’s political establishment.
Her arch foe, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, rushed to the Rawalpindi hospital and broke down.
“It is a sad day in the history of Pakistan … this is all because of the one dictator and he will be held accountable,” a weeping Sharif told journalists, referring to Musharraf.
Sharif poured scorn on the January parliamentary elections.
“These are the bloody elections and the game now should come an end,” Sharif added. And then he called upon the people to avenge the death of Bhutto.
“The government was responsible for the security of politicians and this (assassination) has happened only because of the security lapse,” Sharif said.
Crowds at the Rawalpindi hospital shouted: “Dog, Musharraf, dog!”
As news of the killing spread, violence broke out in all major cities including Lahore, Rawalpindi and Karachi as people vent their anger at government vehicles and buildings.
Bhutto survived a similar suicide attack hours after she returned to Pakistan Oct 18 but some 150 supporters of her party were killed.
Officials said the elections might be postponed in Pakistan.