Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was buried Friday in her ancestral hometown, one day after her assassination in Rawalpindi. Ms. Bhutto was shot at a campaign rally for parliamentary elections due Jan 8. President Pervez Musharraf has declared three days of mourning and appealed for calm amid violent protests by Bhutto supporters, many of whom blame Musharraf and the Army for her death. Unrest continued Friday in some cities, as public transport and businesses shut down.
Bhutto was buried in Naudero, Sindhi province, 350 miles from the southern city of Karachi. Her husband and three children arrived Friday to prepare for the ceremony, and thousands of mourners joined the funeral procession, reports The Times (UK).
The plain wooden coffin carrying her body, her head visible through a glass window but swathed in cloth to cover the bullet wounds in her neck and chest, arrived by ambulance after being flown from Rawalpindi during the night.
Family adherents this morning dug a grave in the marble mausoleum which holds the body of Ms Bhutto's father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, also a popular opposition political leader who met a violent death, as guests gathered for the funeral.
Thousands joined her funeral procession, walking in respectful order behind a white ambulance carrying her coffin, draped in the red, green and black flag of her Pakistan People's Party.
Pakistani security officials have begun trying to identify a man who apparently shot Bhutto at close range just before a deadly bomb ripped through a crowd of political supporters in Rawalpindi, The Guardian reported. In a televised speech, Musharraf blamed the attack on Islamist militants along the border with Afghanistan.
However, authorities said they had yet to identify the attacker. "It is too early to say who may have been responsible," Saud Aziz, the Rawalpindi chief of police, added. A joint task force of police and officials from other law enforcement agencies were investigating, he said.
A spokesman for Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the killing, reports Asia Times Online. Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, described as a top Al Qaeda commander for Afghanistan operations, spoke immediately after Thursday's attack.
"This is our first major victory against those [eg, Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf] who have been siding with infidels [the West] in a fight against Al Qaeda and declared a war against mujahideen," Mustafa told Asia Times Online by telephone.
He said the death squad consisted of Punjabi associates of the underground anti-Shi'ite militant group Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, operating under Al Qaeda orders.
The Associated Press reports that US intelligence agencies are trying to verify Al Qaeda claims of responsibility. A FBI and Homeland Security bulletin sent Thursday to law enforcement agencies referred to claims posted on Islamist websites, an official told AP.
Director of National Intelligence spokesman Ross Feinstein said his agency was "in no position right now to confirm who may have been responsible."
In October, Islamic militants threatened to kill Bhutto on her return from a long period in exile. A suicide bomber that struck near her motorcade in Karachi killed over 130 people; Bhutto narrowly escaped unharmed.
In an email written shortly after that attack, Bhutto complained that Musharraf had failed to provide adequate security and said that if she were to die, he would bear some of the responsibility, reports CNN. She also publicly accused unnamed members of the government and security forces of trying to kill her. CNN obtained the email from Mark Siegel, a longtime friend and US-based advisor to Bhutto.
"Just wanted u to know if it does in addition to the names in my letter to Musharaf of Oct 16nth, I wld hold Musharaf responsible. I have been made to feel insecure by his minions and there is no way what is happening in terms of stopping me from taking private cars or using tinted windows or giving jammers or four police mobiles to cover all sides cld happen without him."
Islamic militants opposed to a pro-Western, secular, female leader are prime suspects in the killing, but Bhutto had other powerful enemies, including elements within Pakistan's security apparatus, reports USA Today.
She had challenged the military and intelligence services by announcing she would allow the United Nations' nuclear watchdog to question A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist accused of sharing technology and expertise with Iran and North Korea.
Banks, shops and markets in Pakistan were closed Friday, and troops were deployed in some cities to quell unrest, Bloomberg reports. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and a political rival of Bhutto's, said his party would boycott next month's elections because it wasn't possible to campaign freely. Caretaker Prime Minister Mohammmedmian Soomro said Friday the elections would be held as scheduled, but added that "any decision on a possible postponement" will be discussed with political parties.
Analysts say Musharraf will be damaged politically by the assassination amid widespread suspicion over the lax security around Bhutto, reports The New York Times. She died in Rawalpindi, the Army's headquarters. Members of Bhutto's party accuse Musharraf's government of wanting her dead, and protests may escalate after her burial, particularly in her stronghold of Karachi.
If Mr. Musharraf declares a state of emergency to rein in protests, he is likely to meet stronger popular opposition than he did when he declared emergency powers in November, analysts said.
"President Musharraf already does not enjoy a high degree of support," said Ijaz Gilani, the chairman of Gallup Pakistan, a leading polling agency. "With this incident, his ability to withstand all these negative segments about him is even more difficult."
If Mr. Musharraf goes ahead with nationwide elections scheduled for Jan. 8, he is likely to encounter street protests as well. Analysts said holding the elections would be seen as an effort by him to take advantage of Ms. Bhutto's death.