Musharraf: Uncertainty remains in Bhutto's death

January 3, 2008 11:45:08 AM PST
President Pervez Musharraf vehemently denied Thursday that Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies were behind Benazir Bhutto's killing, and implied she was partly at fault. Despite threats by militants, Bhutto poked her head out of the sunroof of her vehicle to greet supporters at an election rally, Musharraf said.

He conceded there were shortcomings in Pakistan's investigation into the assassination but rejected accusations of a lapse in security for the former prime minister.

"The same military and intelligence agencies are using the same people who are attacking them? It's a joke," Musharraf said at a news conference, answering accusations that people connected to his government were involved in the suicide bomb and gun attack that killed Bhutto a week ago.

The president acknowledged that his decision to seek help from Scotland Yard to investigate the killing was partly to reassure people at home and abroad that there was no government involvement. Bhutto had accused elements in the ruling party of plotting to kill her.

"Here's a situation where maybe we need to go beyond ourselves to prove to the world and our people here, who are emotionally charged, that we don't mind going to any extent, as nobody is involved from the government side or the agencies," Musharraf said.

Bhutto's killing plunged an already volatile Pakistan deeper into crisis and stoked fears of a political meltdown.

It triggered an outbreak of rioting that has left nearly 60 dead and caused more than a billion dollars in damage in the worst-hit province of Sindh, authorities say. It also forced a six-week delay in parliamentary elections, seen as key to restoring democracy after eight years of military rule since Musharraf took power in a 1999 coup. The vote is now set for Feb. 18.

The assassination also exposed the skepticism of Pakistan's 160 million people over what their rulers tell them after local media began broadcasting still frames and video that challenged the government account. Bhutto's husband is demanding a U.N. probe.

Musharraf maintained Pakistan was capable of managing its own affairs and conducting the investigation, saying it was no "banana republic." But he admitted the government may have erred in giving a precise cause of death for Bhutto just a day after the Dec. 27 killing although no autopsy was conducted.

Musharraf said Bhutto had been told of the militant threats against her. And he denied that a security lapse led to her death, as four mobile units with 30 officers escorted her, and more than 1,000 police were deployed at the Rawalpindi rally where she was slain.

He implied her decision to greet cheering supporters by poking her head out of the sunroof of her vehicle contributed to her death, adding that those who stayed inside were unharmed.

"Who is to be blamed for her coming out of her vehicle?" he asked.

The Interior Ministry claimed the force of the suicide blast caused Bhutto's head to strike a metal lever on the sunroof of her SUV. Her party says she died from gunshot fired from just a few yards away before the blast - an account seemingly supported by video footage.

"One should not give a statement that's 100 percent final. That's the flaw that we suffer from," Musharraf said, noting that more evidence was emerging on the attack. "We needed more experience, maybe more forensic and technical experience that our people don't have. Therefore, I thought Scotland Yard may be more helpful."

He conceded other shortcomings in Pakistan's handling of the case, including the hosing down of the bomb site - a cleanup widely seen as undermining a detailed forensic examination. But he dismissed any suggestion there was a plan to conceal evidence.

"I'm not fully satisfied. I will accept that. Cleaning the area, why did they do that? If you are meaning they did that by design, I would say no. It's just inefficiency, people thinking things have to be cleared, traffic has to go through," he said.

A senior police investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the inquiry, said police had secured key evidence from the scene, including the head of the suspected bomber, body parts, two pistols, and mobile phones. He said Scotland Yard investigators could help determine whether either pistol had been fired in the attack.

Musharraf blamed Taliban militant leaders Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah, also believed linked to al-Qaida, for a wave of suicide attacks. The government already had accused Mehsud of orchestrating the Bhutto attack - which a Mehsud spokesman has denied. The day after the killing, the government published what it said was a communications intercept in which Mehsud congratulated some of his men.

The president, a key ally of Washington in its war on terrorism, said killing Mehsud - who in the intercept gave his location as the town of Makin in the lawless tribal region of South Waziristan - was no easy matter. It would require action by a division of troops and would cause many civilian casualties, he said.

"He's in South Waziristan agency and let me tell you that getting him in this place means battling thousands of his followers," Musharraf said. "It will cause collateral damage."

Still, the president denied that al-Qaida was getting stronger in Pakistan. He said they existed in "penny pockets" despite reports from U.S. intelligence that the terror network's leadership has regrouped in Waziristan.

Musharraf described al-Qaida as financiers of terrorism but saw the main threat as coming from its "facilitators" - Taliban militants who also operate in Afghanistan. He said Pakistan needed political reconciliation to fight terrorism, and he hoped the Feb. 18 elections would haul the country out of its current crisis.

"This is the greatest threat Pakistan has and we have to have political reconciliation to fight it together," he said.

But the opposition persisted Thursday with its calls for Musharraf to resign.

"Free and fair polls are impossible under his leadership," said Javed Hashmi, a senior member of the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who was ousted in Musharraf's 1999 coup.

International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said that unless Musharraf steps down from the presidency, "the international community could face the nightmare of a nuclear-armed, Muslim country descending into civil war."

In a new report, it called on the United States to recognize that Musharraf was "a serious liability, seen as complicit" in Bhutto's death.