Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated Thursday, apparently after being shot and then attacked by a suicide bomber as she left a campaign rally, aides said. Twenty others also died.
The death of the charismatic former prime minister threw the campaign for the Jan. 8 election into chaos and created fears of mass protests and an eruption of violence across the volatile South Asian country.
The attacker struck just minutes after Bhutto addressed a rally of thousands of supporters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. She was shot in the neck and chest by the attacker, who then blew himself up, said Rehman Malik, Bhutto’s security adviser.
At least 20 others were killed in the blast.
Bhutto was rushed to the hospital and taken into emergency surgery.
“At 6:16 p.m. she expired,” said Wasif Ali Khan, a member of Bhutto’s party who was at Rawalpindi General Hospital.
“The surgeons confirmed that she has been martyred,” said Senator Babar Awan, Bhutto’s lawyer.
Bhutto’s supporters at the hospital exploded in anger, smashing the glass door at the main entrance of the emergency unit. Others burst into tears. One man with a flag of Pakistan People’s party tied around his head was beating his chest.
Some at the hospital began chanting, “Killer, Killer, Musharraf,” referring to President Pervez Musharraf, Bhutto’s main political opponent. A few began stoning cars outside.
“We repeatedly informed the government to provide her proper security and appropriate equipment including jammers, but they paid no heed to our requests,” Malik said.
Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister and opposition leader, arrived at the hospital and sat silently next to Bhutto’s body.
U.S. officials said they were looking into reports of Bhutto’s death.
“Certainly, we condemn the attack on this rally. It demonstrates that there are still those in Pakistan who want to subvert reconciliation and efforts to advance democracy,” said deputy U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey.
The United States has for months been encouraging Musharraf to reach some kind of political accommodation with the opposition, particular Bhutto, who is seen as having a wide base of support here.
Bhutto served twice as Pakistan’s prime minister between 1988 and 1996. She had returned to Pakistan from an eight-year exile on Oct. 18. Her homecoming parade in Karachi was also targeted by a suicide attacker, killing more than 140 people. On that occasion she narrowly escaped injury.
The scene of the bombing Tuesday was awash in blood.
An Associated Press reporter could see body parts and flesh scattered at the back gate of the Liaqat Bagh park where Bhutto had spoken. He counted about 20 bodies, including police, and could see many other wounded people.
Party supporter Chaudry Mohammed Nazir said two gunshots rang out when Bhutto’s vehicle pulled into the main street and then there was a huge blast next to her car.
Police cordoned off the street with white and red tape, and rescue workers rushed to put victims in ambulances as people wailed nearby.
The clothing of some of the victims was shredded and people put party flags over their bodies. Police caps and shoes littered the asphalt.
On Thursday, hundreds of riot police had manned security checkpoints to guard the venue. It was Bhutto’s first public meeting in Rawalpindi since she came back to the country.
In November, Bhutto had also planned a rally in the city, but Musharraf forced her to cancel it, citing security fears.
In recent weeks, suicide bombers have repeatedly targeted security forces in Rawalpindi, a city near the capital where Musharraf stays and the Pakistan army has its headquarters.