Pakistan's former prime minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated Thursday at a campaign rally just two weeks before parliamentary elections.

Police say a suicide bomber fired gunshots at Ms. Bhutto just moments before blowing himself up, killing at least 20 others.

Ms. Bhutto died shortly after addressing a crowd of supporters in a park near Pakistan's army headquarters in Rawalpindi, outside the capital, Islamabad. She was rushed to a local hospital, but doctors were unable to save her. She was 54 years old.

The news sparked violent protests in several cities, including Karachi, and at least nine people have died in the rioting. The Pakistani army was put on red alert.

Ms. Bhutto's husband arrived in Islamabad from Dubai to see his wife's body. Her coffin is on its way to Larkana in southern Sindh province. Ms. Bhutto is to be buried next to her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

In an address to the nation, President Pervez Musharraf blamed terrorists for her assassination. He also announced three days of mourning for Ms. Bhutto and called for calm across Pakistan.

Later, the country's other opposition leader and former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, said his party, the Pakistan Muslim League, will boycott the January 8 elections. He also demanded that President Musharraf resign immediately.

Analysts say the assassination could jeopardize the parliamentary elections.

Hours before the attack, VOA spoke with Ms. Bhutto, who had just held talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Pakistan. She said she and President Karzai had agreed they must work together to eliminate terrorism and extremism.

Ms. Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October after eight years in exile. She escaped injury in a double suicide attack during her homecoming procession in Karachi that killed around 140 people.

For months, Ms. Bhutto had been in talks with President Musharraf for a possible power-sharing deal strongly favored by the United States. But talks had stalled, and Ms. Bhutto was campaigning to run in the January 8 elections.

Ms. Bhutto also sought to join forces with Mr. Sharif.  

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.