Two Pakistani militants arrested in connection with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto have confessed that they were seeking revenge for the death of a comrade killed in a commando assault on Islamabad's Red Mosque in July 2007, a police official said on Wednesday.
The confessions of Hasnain Gul and Rafaqat, who were arrested last week and admitted planning the gun and suicide bombing attack on Bhutto December 27 in the city of Rawalpindi, calls into question government claims that the attack was ordered by a Taliban commander in north-west Pakistan allegedly linked to Al Qaeda.
In the most detailed account of an assassination that rocked Pakistan to its core, Abdul Majeed, head of a Pakistani police investigation team, told a press conference late on Wednesday that Gul had been in close contact with militant friends in Pakistan's volatile North-West Frontier province (NWFP) since last summer.
Gul volunteered to organize attacks on government and military targets in Rawalpindi, a garrison city near Islamabad, after learning that a fellow militant was killed in the Red Mosque incident, Majeed said.
Gul then organized a team including two suicide bombers to kill Bhutto after learning she would be addressing an election rally in Rawalpindi's Liaquat Bagh.
"The motive for carrying out the suicide attack on Bhutto was because she was returning to Pakistan with the support of a foreign power," Majeed told reporters, apparently referring to the US, which helped broker the deal with embattled Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf on Bhutto's return home from self-exile.
Majeed said Gul posted bombers on the park's two main gates, one of whom, identified for the first time as Balil, got close enough to Bhutto to fire three shots at her with a pistol before blowing himself up within two metres of her vehicle.
British investigators have concluded that Bhutto, who was standing through the vehicle's rooftop escape hatch and waving to supporters, died from cracking her skull after recoiling from the blast.
The other bomber, who Majeed identified as Ikram Ullah, did not blow himself up as the initial attack was successful. Ullah fled Rawalpindi and went to the NWFP's tribal areas, where the Taliban, Al Qaeda and local militant groups have safe havens.
Majeed said Gul had organized at least two other suicide attacks on Pakistani military targets in 2007, one of which killed 11 people.
He also said Gul provided both bombers in the Bhutto assassination with suicide vests, and personally gave Balil the pistol and a pair of dark sunglasses. Video footage and photographs clearly showed the attacker wearing dark sunglasses and pointing a pistol at Bhutto.
But Majeed declined to answer when asked whether Gul confessed to planning the attack under the orders of Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, who Musharraf and US intelligence officials have claimed was behind the hit.
"We are still investigating this," he told reporters. "As soon as there is some progress, we will share information with you."
Bhutto's assassination has been mired in controversy because of conflicting government accounts of how she died and who was responsible.
Her family and political supporters claim that rogue elements within Musharraf's government killed her to prevent her from winning an unprecedented third term as prime minister in elections now rescheduled for next Monday.
Musharraf insists that Mehsud ordered Bhutto's assassination and said the Taliban commmander had trained hundreds of suicide bombers at his base in the tribal areas to target the government, military and political figures.
In late January, authorities arrested a would-be teenage bomber, along with his handler, who reportedly confessed to being the next in line to attack Bhutto had she survived the Rawalpindi attack.