Mysterious Crowd Suddenly Stopped Bhutto’s Car
By Saeed Shah and Jonathan S. Landay,
McClatchy NewspapersFri Jan 11,
Two new reports on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto suggest that the killing may have been an ambitious plot rather than an isolated act of violence and that the government of President Musharraf knows far more than it’s admitted about the murder.
A police officer who witnessed the assassination said that a mysterious crowd stopped Bhutto’s car that day, moving her to emerge through the sunroof. And a document has surfaced in the Pakistani news media that contradicts the government’s version of her death and contains details on the pistol and the suicide bomb used in the murder.
The witness was Ishtiaq Hussain Shah of the Rawalpindi police. As Bhutto’s car headed onto Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Road after an election rally Dec. 27 , a crowd appeared from nowhere and stopped the motorcade, shouting slogans of her Pakistan Peoples Party and waving party banners, according to his account.
Bhutto, apparently thinking she was greeting her supporters, emerged through the sunroof of the bulletproof car to wave.
It was Shah’s job to clear the way for the motorcade. But 10 feet from where he was standing, a man in the crowd wearing a jacket and sunglasses raised his arm and shot at the former prime minister. “I jumped to overpower him,” the deputy police superintendent said later. “A mighty explosion took place soon afterwards.”
Shah suffered multiple injuries and is recuperating in a Rawalpindi military hospital, guarded by agents of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate.
Who organized the crowd is only one of the mysteries two weeks after the assassination. “I don’t know who they were or from where they came,” the Rawalpindi officer told Dawn newspaper. “They just appeared on the road.”
The second report emerged in the Pakistani daily newspaper The News, with detailed information about the pistol and bomb. It rejects the government’s conclusion that Bhutto died when the force of the suicide blast threw her head against the sunroof lever of her car. Such an impact couldn’t have fractured her skull, it said. The government refused to confirm the report’s authenticity, but a security official verified it to McClatchy . He spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
According to the document, which the paper described as a “top agency” preliminary report, a pistol made by Norinco, a Chinese brand, was recovered from the scene, with the lot number 311-90. An MUV-2 triggering mechanism for the bomb also was found, as had been used in 15 previous suicide bombings in Pakistan , with the same lot number and factory code.
“It is a clear indicator that the same terrorist group is involved in almost all these incidents,” concluded the report, which the paper quoted at length.
Another mystery of the case is why so valuable a report has been buried. Among its other conclusions: Bhutto’s assassin, after shooting her, detonated his own suicide belt. No ambulance was called, and it took 25 minutes to get her to the hospital, only two miles from the scene.
Bhutto, and her security adviser Rehman Malik , had complained repeatedly that she was given inadequate official security, including mobile phone jammers that didn’t work and less than the four-vehicle escort that she thought was needed to protect the four corners of her car. In an e-mail to her U.S. lobbyist, Mark Siegel , in late October, Bhutto wrote that if anything happened to her “I would hold Musharraf responsible,” in addition to four individuals she named as plotting to kill her in a letter sent to Musharraf on Oct. 16 .
There was no security cordon around Bhutto— who’d escaped a suicide bombing attack Oct. 18 , the day she returned to Pakistan from self-imposed exile abroad— as she left the park in Rawalpindi. The crime scene was cleared immediately and hosed down, destroying vital evidence. Doctors at the hospital where she was taken, who announced the night it happened that she’d died of bullet wounds to the head and neck, changed their story the next day. There was no autopsy.
Musharraf’s government has stuck to its explanation that Bhutto died when she hit her head on the sunroof’s lever after the bomb went off, despite the emergence of several videos that show the gunman firing, then Bhutto disappearing into her vehicle before the blast. Officials also turned up what they said was a transcript of a telephone conversation between the supposed masterminds— militant Islamists allied with the Taliban— congratulating each other, the next day.
Scotland Yard detectives, whom Musharraf called in under pressure from home and abroad, have been told that they’re to investigate only the cause of death, not the killer’s identity. “Providing clarity regarding ‘The precise cause of Ms. Bhutto’s death’ is said to be the principal purpose of the deployment,” said Aidan Liddle , a spokesman for the British High Commission in Islamabad .
To many in Pakistan , it all raises questions about whether the government was complicit in the assassination. To others, it points at the very least to a concerted attempt to hide the massive extent of a security failure.
Bhutto’s own private-security arrangements seemed poor, chaotic and amateurish. Armored cars are not fitted with sunroofs. Hers was modified in Karachi against all safety advice, according to a security company that operates in that city but spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. After Bhutto’s death, her husband made the startling revelation that she’d been guarded by men he’d met in prison.
“Both the state and the internal security of the Pakistan Peoples Party failed miserably,” said Masood Sharif Khattak , who was the head of the Intelligence Bureau , Pakistan’s top civilian intelligence agency, while Bhutto was prime minister and now is retired. “But state responsibility (for her security) stands first and foremost.”
“The fact that there are so many suicide bombings taking place in the country, and the security and intelligence apparatus is unable to prevent them, only leads to one conclusion: The jihadists have enablers within the system that allow them to do their stuff,” said Kamran Bokhari of Strategic Forecasting, a consultancy based in Austin, Texas .
“We’re not talking high-level officials, just people at midlevel, but mostly junior, who could provide them with logistics to operate.”
Musharraf has denied that government agencies are involved at any level.
One of the most widely suspected forces behind Bhutto’s assassination, al Qaida, hasn’t claimed responsibility. The Pakistani militant whom the government has blamed, Baitullah Mehsud, has denied it. Mehsud is a 34-year-old tribal leader in the lawless Waziristan region, in the northwest, who’s emerged as the leader of Pakistan’s version of the Taliban.
Dr. Farzana Shaikh , associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London , said: “If they (al Qaida) are intent on weakening Musharraf and his regime, they could do no better than this. For them to simply leave room open for speculation, much of which has centered on government complicity, would be a very clever move.”
“That people are willing to believe this is a very telling reflection of the declining credibility of the Musharraf regime.”
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)