RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was killed Thursday in a suicide attack as she drove away from a campaign rally just minutes after addressing thousands of supporters, aides said.
The death of the charismatic former prime minister threw the campaign for the Jan. 8 election into chaos and created fears of mass protests and an eruption of violence across the volatile south Asian nation.
It left a void at the top of her Pakistan People's Party, the largest political group in the country. It also threw into turmoil U.S. President George W. Bush's plan to bring stability to this key U.S. ally by reconciling her and President Pervez Musharraf.
Shortly after Bhutto's death, Musharraf convened an emergency meeting with his senior staff, where they were expected to discuss whether to postpone the election, an official at the Interior Ministry said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
Next to Musharraf, Bhutto, 54, was the best known political figure in the country, serving two terms as prime minister between 1988 and 1996. She was respected in the West for her liberal outlook and determination to combat the spread of Islamic extremism, a theme she returned to often in her campaign speeches.
As news of her death spread, supporters at the hospital in Rawalpindi smashed glass doors and stoned cars. Many chanted slogans against Musharraf, accusing him of complicity in her killing.
Angry supporters also took to the streets in the northwestern city of Peshawar as well other areas, chanting slogans against Musharraf. In Rawalpindi, the site of the attack, Bhutto's supporters burned election posters from the ruling party and attacked police, who fled from the scene.
The attacker struck just minutes after Bhutto addressed a rally of thousands of supporters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. There were conflicting accounts over the sequence of events.
Rehman Malik, Bhutto's security adviser, said she was shot in the neck and chest by the attacker, who then blew himself up.
But Javed Iqbal Cheema, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, told state-run Pakistan Television that Bhutto died when a suicide bomber struck her vehicle. At least 20 others were killed in the blast, an Associated Press reporter at the scene saw.
U.S. officials said they were looking into reports of Bhutto's death.
"Certainly, we condemn the attack on this rally. It demonstrates that there are still those in Pakistan who want to subvert reconciliation and efforts to advance democracy," said deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey.
The United States has for months been encouraging Musharraf to reach some kind of political accommodation with the opposition, particular Bhutto, who is seen as having a wide base of support here.
Bhutto had returned to Pakistan from an eight-year exile on Oct. 18. Her homecoming parade in Karachi was also targeted by a suicide attacker, killing more than 140 people. On that occasion she narrowly escaped injury.
Bhutto was killed just a few miles from the scene of her father's violent death 28 years earlier. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a former prime minister and the founder of the party that his daughter would later lead, was executed by hanging in 1979 in Rawalpindi on charges of conspiracy to murder that supporters said was politically motivated by the then-military regime. His killing led to violent protests across the country.