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Pakistan Dispute Erupts Over How Bhutto Died


A bitter dispute has erupted in Pakistan over how opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto died. The government has blamed al-Qaida but the alleged al-Qaida leader Baitullah Mehsud denies involvement in the assassination. Ms. Bhutto's supporters say the government is covering up its failure to protect her, as VOA's Nancy-Amelia Collins reports from the capital Islamabad.

Pakistan insists slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was killed on Thursday by al-Qaida extremists.

The government says a gunman fired three shots that missed the opposition leader, before blowing himself up. It says Ms. Bhutto died after the force of the blast caused her to hit her head against the lever on the sunroof of her car.

But Ms. Bhutto's close aide and secretary of information for her Pakistan People's Party, Shery Rehman, told VOA Saturday the government's claim is nonsense.

"What the government is saying is completely ridiculous, in fact it's dangerous nonsense that she knocked her head against the lever of the sunroof or some such thing, as if that would attack her. But frankly," said Rehman, "it's very clear, it's 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. I have seen the bullet wound myself, I was part of the bathing ritual party and she bled to death from that wound."

On Friday, Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Cheema told journalists the assailant was from al-Qaida, and the terrorist group was bent on destroying the nation.

"We have irrefutable evidence that al-Qaida, its networks, and cohorts are trying to destabilize Pakistan which is in the forefront of the war against terrorism," said Cheema.

But on Saturday, one of Pakistan's most wanted men, the Islamist leader believed to be a leader of al-Qaida, Baitullah Mehsud, denied al-Qaida had anything to do with Ms. Bhutto's death.

Ms. Bhutto's aide, Shery Rehman, believes the government is blaming al-Qaida in an effort to divert attention from its failure to protect the opposition leader.

"Why I say it's dangerous nonsense is because this indicates either a cover-up or a complete abdication of responsibility for the provision of security for a second time prime minister and for somebody who had been under threat constantly during her political rallies," Rehman said.

Ms. Bhutto's death has plunged the nuclear-armed nation into crisis with bloody protests spread across the country that have so far left more than 30 people dead.

A suicide bomber attacked the Bhutto convoy on her return to the country in October after years of exile, killing 140 people.

On Friday, the government said it had no plans to delay the January eighth elections. But officials Saturday said the printing of ballot papers had been disrupted, and emergency talks on the election schedule would be held.