Explosions Target Bhutto Convoy in Karachi
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 18, 2007; 5:57 PM
KARACHI, Pakistan, Oct. 19 -- Two explosions tore into a convoy transporting former prime minister Benazir Bhutto through Karachi early Friday, killing and injuring scores of people celebrating her triumphant return to Pakistan from eight years in exile.
Police and Bhutto aides said she was not injured by the blasts. But authorities quoted by news services said more than 100 people were killed and at least 150 injured by the explosions, which struck near Bhutto's vehicle shortly after midnight.
Television news footage showed scores of cars caught in gridlock following the blasts and hundreds of people streaming from the scene.
Witnesses said two bombs detonated as Bhutto and her supporters were driving through Karachi as part of a massive and joyous celebration that began when she arrived in Pakistan Thursday, ending her exile. Throngs of people followed her through the day as she began what was to have been a national tour.
The bombs, which struck within about 30 seconds of each other, did significant damage to Bhutto's vehicle, a large truck fitted with a bulletproof enclosure built to withstand blasts.
An initial small explosion from a bomb in a parked car was followed by a much larger blast just feet from the front of Bhutto's truck, witnesses said. The second blast shattered windows in her vehicle and destroyed a police pickup truck that was escorting the convoy, they said. A number of police officers riding in the escort vehicle were apparently killed.
The source of the second blast was not immediately clear. Observers on the scene said it could have come from another vehicle or a suicide bomber.
Witnesses also reported hearing three gunshots after the blasts, and three indentations were later found in the bulletproof enclosure on Bhutto's vehicle.
Bhutto's lawyer said the former prime minister was unhurt, and Karachi's police chief said she was "evacuated very safely" to her residence in Karachi.
Tens of thousands of Pakistanis had surrounded Bhutto's convoy as it slowly made its way through the city.
A Bhutto aide traveling with her in the truck, Rehman Malik, said the bombs went off while she was resting inside the vehicle, Reuters news agency reported.
President Pervez Musharraf denounced the attack as "a conspiracy against democracy."
In Washington, the White House condemned the bombings and mourned the loss of innocent life.
"Extremists will not be allowed to stop Pakistanis from selecting their representatives through an open and democratic process," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
Ignoring assassination threats and a suggestion from Musharraf that she delay her homecoming, Bhutto arrived on a plane from Dubai Thursday at a time of immense turmoil in Pakistan -- with her presence and possible return to the prime ministership adding another layer of uncertainty.
A teary-eyed Bhutto stepped onto the tarmac at 2:16 p.m. local time, turned her head to the sky, and said: "It's great to be back home. It is a dream come true."
A scrum of hundreds of reporters and photographers surrounded her to document the moment and followed her across the tarmac as she began a trip to the tomb of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founder. Bhutto rode in a bulletproof container resting on top of a traditional Pakistani truck, one of dozens of vehicles in the slow procession. Two hours into the procession Thursday, Bhutto's vehicle had traveled less than a mile.
Before the blasts, revelers danced and sang in the roads as her vehicle passed, with many chanting "Prime Minister Benazir!" and hoisting aloft the red, black and green flags of her Pakistan People's Party. In many places, the crowds lining the route were 20 or 25 people deep. Bhutto waved and smiled broadly as she passed, her white headscarf fluttering in a light breeze when she went without the protection of the bulletproof container.
The crowd largely refrained from any chants attacking the highly unpopular Musharraf, perhaps in deference to the fact that Bhutto could be sharing power with him by January if her party performs well in parliamentary elections.
Aides had predicted that perhaps 1 million Pakistanis would gather to welcome her, and Pakistani television stations reported she may have hit that mark. Under a hot October sun, Karachi -- a city with a reputation for disorder -- became one giant street festival.
"Our leader has come," said Aijaz Laghari, a resident of Bhutto's ancestral homeland who made the long drive to Karachi overnight so he could welcome her. "These are the poor people who have come here, and she is among us. We are very proud that she said she would come on the 18th, and she did. The government said she should not come, but now she is here."
Celebrations began on her flight home, with hundreds of supporters cheering wildly as the plane took off from Dubai and again as it landed.
"To those of you returning to Pakistan after a long absence, I wish you a safe, enjoyable time," the Emirates Airlines captain announced over the public address system.
Bhutto has cast her return as instrumental to the restoration of democracy and civilian government in Pakistan following eight years of military rule under Musharraf.
"My return heralds for the people of Pakistan the turn of the wheel from dictatorship to democracy," Bhutto said at a news conference in Dubai, where she had spent much of her exile.
But despite the early jubilation in Karachi, Bhutto's democratic credentials are being questioned by many in Pakistan, who accuse her of undercutting a once-burgeoning anti-Musharraf movement by negotiating a deal with the general.
Under its terms, Bhutto will not have to face corruption charges that she alleges are politically motivated. In turn, she kept her supporters from boycotting the assemblies this month that elected Musharraf to a new five-year term. Other opposition groups resigned in protest, decrying the election as a farce.
Bhutto has not lived a day in Pakistan under Musharraf, but she could be sharing power with him as soon as January if she succeeds in winning back the prime ministership.
That quest began Thursday with a return that Bhutto hoped would compare favorably to her homecoming in 1986, when about 1 million Pakistanis greeted her in the eastern city of Lahore after two years of exile under Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.
In Karachi, final preparations were underway Wednesday. Supporters were beginning to stream in, and thousands of security personnel had been deployed across the city to guard against possible terrorist attacks. A Taliban leader from the troubled tribal region of South Waziristan, Beitullah Mehsud, threatened that Bhutto's return would be met with suicide bombers.
Bhutto said Wednesday that she was not afraid and that anyone who attacked her would "burn in hell."
Bhutto has other concerns, as well. Unlike another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was deported four hours after he returned from exile last month, Bhutto was able to enter the country. Still, Musharraf had urged Bhutto to delay her trip, citing lingering uncertainty over his election win because the Supreme Court has not yet ruled on a challenge to his candidacy. Hearings in that case began Wednesday.