Speaking before her return to Pakistan earlier this year, late opposition leader Benazir Bhutto underlined her determination to build “better lives for her people” stranded in “an ocean of poverty”.
The death of the charismatic former prime minister yesterday threw the campaign for the January 8 polls into chaos and created fears of mass protests and eruption of violence across the volatile south Asian nation.
It is ironic that Bhutto had told Emirates Business that she planned to contest the elections because the fight for democracy was for the “future direction of Pakistan… for developing a structure in South Asia that can help all the people” in the region.
Bhutto was assassinated apparently after being shot and then attacked by a suicide bomber as she left a campaign rally, her aides said. Twenty others also lost their lives. The attacker struck 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.
Bhutto was rushed to hospital and taken into emergency surgery. “At 6.16 pm 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.
Nawaz Sharif, another former premier and opposition leader, arrived at the hospital and sat silently next to Bhutto’s body.
President Pervez Musharraf condemned the attack and urged calm in the wake of Bhutto’s killing. He convened an emergency meeting with his senior staff, where they were expected to discuss whether to postpone the election, an official at the Interior Ministry said.
Meanwhile, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan said the UAE has been grief-stricken by this huge loss, which has hit not only Pakistan but also the Emirates.
The minister said: “The great late [Bhutto] was a dear friend of the United Arab Emirates with which she was related through humanitarian relations for many years.”
US President George W Bush says those responsible for the killing must be brought to justice.
“The US strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan’s democracy,” he said. “Those who committed this crime must be brought to justice.”
The US 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.
The Congress last week imposed new restrictions on US assistance to Pakistan, including tying $50 million (Dh183.5m) in military aid to State Department assurances that the country is making “concerted efforts” to prevent terrorists from operating inside its borders.
Under the law, which provides $300 million in aid to Pakistan and was signed by Bush on Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also must guarantee Pakistan is implementing democratic reforms, including releasing political prisoners and restoring an independent judiciary.
The law also prevents any of the funds to be used for cash transfer assistance to Pakistan, but that stipulation had already been adopted by the administration.
Despite the congressional move, Richard Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs who had been instrumental in engineering the Bhutto-Musharraf reconciliation, said he had little doubt that the administration would get the money.
Meanwhile British Prime Minister Gordon Brown condemned the killing of Bhutto as an atrocity, and said extremists must not be allowed to kill democracy.
Bhutto served twice as Pakistan’s prime minister between 1988 and 1996. She had returned to Pakistan from an eight-year exile on October 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.
In November, Bhutto had also planned a rally in the city, but President Pervez Musharraf forced her to cancel it, citing security fears.
In recent weeks, suicide bombers have repeatedly targeted security forces in Rawalpindi near the capital where Musharraf stays and the Pakistan army has its headquarters.