The Al-Qaeda international terrorist organization claimed responsibility Thursday night for the assassination of popular Pakistani opposition leader Benzair Bhutto a few hours earlier.
Appeals by the popular Pakistani politician to the U.S., Israel and Britain for protection by their security agencies weeks earlier had gone unanswered.
The first woman elected to head a Muslim state was murdered by a gunman who blew himself up in an assassination-suicide bombing attack that left at least 16 other people dead and scores injured. A man identifying himself as senior Al-Qaeda terrorist Mustafa abu-Yazid later called an Italian news agency on Thursday night and claimed his group's responsibility for the assassination. The man said that the former prime minister was killed for her ties with the United States and her plans to fight Pakistani terrorists. Intelligence agencies are investigating the report.
Bhutto was leaving a political rally held in a park in the city of Rawalpindi as part of her campaign for the January 8 national elections when she was assassinated. Police officials said the murderer blew himself up after shooting her.
Bhutto Appealed for Protection
A report published Friday by the Hebrew-language Maariv newspaper revealed that Bhutto had "desperately" asked the CIA, Scotland Yard and the Mossad security agencies to assist in her personal protection in the weeks prior to her murder.
She said in her appeals to the U.S., British and Israel security agencies that her opponent, President Pervez Musharraf, would not let her protect herself adequately; she was not allowed to use dark-paned windows in her motorcade or use equipment to locate roadside explosives. She said she suspected Musharraf wanted to make her an easy target for assassins.
In Israel, discussions were held on the subject between the Foreign Ministry, which supported Bhutto's request for protection, and the Mossad as well as other bodies involved with protection of state leaders and VIPs. No decision was reached due to Israel's concern about upsetting the Pakistani or Indian regimes.
Israeli leaders expressed sorrow on Thursday night after hearing of Bhutto’s death. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Bhutto could have provided a tie to the Muslim world. Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman echoed the sentiments of President Shimon Peres when he described Bhutto as “intelligent and charismatic.” Bhutto was in contact with Peres, Gillerman and other Israeli officials despite the lack of official ties between Israel and Pakistan.
A Recent Assassination Attempt Failed
The attack followed a previous assassination attempt in October during her triumphant return to Pakistan from self-imposed exile. At the time, she said Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were among the four groups she blamed for the attack.
Taliban commander Haji Omar had vowed to kill Bhutto shortly before her return to Pakistan in October. This month, Al-Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, accused Bhutto of being a puppet of the U.S. government.
Several media reports said that Bhutto sent an email to one of her confidantes in Washington, an American named Mark Siegel, in which she said she would blame Musharraf if she was murdered. She asked Siegel not to make the email public unless she was assassinated.
U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said, "It is clear that whoever is responsible [for the assassination] is someone who opposes peaceful, democratic development and change in Pakistan."
The U.S. has offered the assistance of its Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in investigating Bhutto's murder. Pakistan has not yet responded.
Violence Wracks Pakistan in Wake of Murder
Riots swiftly broke out throughout Pakistan in response to the assassination. In Karachi, capital of Bhutto's native province of Sindh, businesses closed down as supporters torched at least 100 cars and tires, hurled rocks, and burned down a gas station. Shots were fired as well, wounding two police officers. Five people were killed and three injured in the riots.
Police were put on red alert. "The entire city is on fire," said a local resident.
Because Islamic law calls for bodies to be buried within 24 hours after death, Bhutto's funeral is expected to be held on Friday, the Muslim weekly holy day.