Former Pakistan prime minister and leader of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated on Thursday in a suicide attack shortly after a political rally in Rawalpindi’s Liaqat Bagh.
Bhutto, 54, is said to have died of bullet wounds to her neck and head in a Rawalpindi hospital. Thirty people died in Thursday’s attack, most victims of a suicide-bomber who pushed through the security cordon on a bicycle and blew himself up near Bhutto’s car.
“The man first fired at her vehicle. She ducked and then he blew himself up,” said police officer Mohammad Shahid. “We have been robbed of a great leader and a symbol of courage and determination,” said Farahnaz Ispahani, a woman member of Bhutto’s party. Her husband, Asif Zardari, who rushed to Pakistan from Dubai (where he lives), said it was a targeted attack.
Bhutto became the first female prime minister in the Muslim world when she was elected in 1988 at the age of 35. She was deposed in 1990, re-elected in 1993, and ousted again in 1996 amid charges of corruption and mismanagement. She said the charges were politically motivated but in 1999 chose to stay in exile rather than face them.
The fatal attack took place at the main gate of Liaqat Bagh, one of the main public parks in Rawalpindi, the garrison town that borders Islamabad. After her return from self-exile on October 19, her political convoy was bombed in Karachi. In that incident as well, shots were fired at the van she was travelling in.
On Thursday afternoon, Benazir completed her speech well ahead of the sunset deadline that the election commission had set for political rallies. As she was leaving the ground, the suicide bomber struck. Bhutto’s driver tried to drive away following the blast but it is unclear what obstacle came in the way.
After the shooting, Bhutto was rushed to the Rawalpindi General Hospital where she breathed her last. It is believed that she died of excessive bleeding and heart failure.
In her speech, Bhutto spoke of the risks she faced. “I put my life in danger and came here because I feel this country is in danger. People are worried. We will bring the country out of this crisis,” Bhutto told the rally.
People cried, hugged each other and shouted anti-Musharraf slogans outside the hospital where she died.
Another former prime minister and opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, said: "My heart is bleeding and I'm as grieved as you are".
Following news of the death, rioting and public disorder broke out in most cities and towns across the country. People attacked shops and burnt cars and petrol stations to vent their anger at the incident. Police went on high alert while President Pervez Musharaf chaired a high-level meeting to assess the situation.
People were asked to stay indoors as chaos was witnessed in many city areas. Mobile phone services in many cities went off air, which also spread panic.
"A major political vacuum has been created," commented Talat Husain, an anchor with a local news channel. Political analysts are speculating as to who will succeed Ms Bhutto as the chairperson of the PPP. "A number of decisions will be taken on Friday after Mr Zardari arrives in Karachi and some plan of action is chalked out," commnented Tahir Hasan Khan, a political correspondent for The News.
The PPP has announced three days of mourning on the death of their leader. Other important personalities injured in the attack include Ms Naheed Khan, the political secretary to Ms Bhutto.