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Rioting Prompts Musharraf to Order Security Forces to Take Firm Action

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has ordered security forces to take firm action against rioters following the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. The violence has left at least 44 people dead and dozens injured. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from Islamabad that a bitter dispute has also erupted over how the 54-year-old politician died and who was behind her assassination.

Thursday's assassination of Ms. Bhutto has plunged the Pakistani nation into crisis, with bloody protests across the country. Officials say the violence has also caused tens-of-millions of dollars in damages. Most of the deaths have occurred in southern Sindh province, Ms. Bhutto's political stronghold.

The worsening security situation prompted President Musharraf on Saturday to order his security chiefs to deal firmly with violent protesters.

Ms. Bhutto was killed when an unknown attacker fired shots at her and then blew himself up as she was leaving an election rally in Rawalpindi on Thursday.

Pakistani officials say that Ms. Bhutto's death occurred when the force of the suicide blast crashed her head against a lever on the sunroof of her vehicle. An official investigation is under way, but leaders of Ms. Bhutto's party have rejected the official account of her death as "ridiculous."

Ms. Bhutto's senior advisor, Sherry Rehman, says she helped wash the slain politician's body for burial. She alleges the government is trying to cover-up its failure to protect Ms. Bhutto, who was campaigning for January 8 elections.

"It is very clear, it is running on all the Pakistan TV channels, the footage of an assassin who took clear aim at her with his gun and fired the shot that went through the back of her head and came out the other," she said. "I have seen the bullet wound myself. I was part of the bathing ritual party and she bled to death from that wound."

Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Cheema told reporters in Islamabad Saturday that the government's version is based on a medical report and other evidence collected from the scene of the attack.

"Now, if there is any doubt, if they say that she died of the bullet wounds, we don't mind," he said. "If the Peoples Party's leadership wants, her body can be exhumed and post-mortemed. They are most welcome, but we gave you what the facts are."

Pakistani authorities have accused a pro-al-Qaida fugitive tribal leader, Baitullah Mehsud, of ordering Ms. Bhutto's assassination.

But a spokesman for Mehsud has denied the militant leader had anything to do with the assassination. Government spokesman Cheema says investigators have collected irrefutable evidence of Mehsud's involvement in the suicide attack on Ms. Bhutto.

"No criminal would ever accept responsibility of a crime that one has committed. It does not suit him," he said. "And I don't think anybody else has the capability to recruit and carry out such kind of attacks except for those [al-Qaida] people."

Pakistan plans to hold parliamentary elections next month. But election officials say that violent unrest across the country sparked by Ms. Bhutto's assassination has undermined preparations for the polls.

Another top Pakistani opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, says his party will boycott the elections, adding to the uncertainty surrounding the January 8 date.

Ms. Bhutto returned home from eight years of self-imposed exile in October, hoping to become prime minister for a third time. She narrowly escaped a suicide attack on her homecoming rally in Karachi, hours after she landed in Pakistan.