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26 May 2024

Thousands gather in Pakistan for end of Bhutto mourning

By Agencies


Thousands of people massed at slain Pakistan opposition leader Benazir Bhutto's tomb Thursday as her party ended 40 days of mourning and relaunched its campaign for upcoming elections.

Mourners beat their chests and showered rose petals over the grave of the former premier during the Muslim religious rituals at the Bhutto clan's white marble mausoleum in rural southern Pakistan.

Security was tight ahead of a speech by her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, in which he was set to kickstart the Pakistan People's Party's drive for the country's crucial general elections on February 18.

"We have to win this election -- in our leader's words, democracy is the best revenge," mourner Nabi Bux Kalhoro told AFP as songs of mourning blared over loudspeakers.

Party officials said they expected tens of thousands of people to turn out to mark Bhutto's "chehlum" -- the completion of the mourning period following her assassination on December 27.

Bhutto was killed in a gun and suicide bomb attack in the garrison city of Rawalpindi that touched off days of rioting and forced the elections to be postponed by six weeks.

The government has accused a tribal warlord with links to the Taliban and Al Qaeda of masterminding her murder, but Bhutto wrote before her death that government and intelligence figures were plotting to kill her.

Paramilitary troops stood guard at the venue on Thursday, while police and party workers threw up a cordon around the raised platform in front of the mausoleum from which Zardari is due to address the crowds.

Walk-though scanners were set up to check the crowds.

"We have made maximum security arrangements on the occasion," said Ghulam Rasool Dombki, police chief of the nearby town of Larkana, the Bhutto family's constituency in southern Sindh province.

Pakistani authorities have warned that politicians are at risk of further attacks in the run-up to elections. Many have dismissed it as a way of keeping parties opposed to President Pervez Musharraf off the streets.

Despite the warnings, and the bitter cold, many visitors including women and children stayed overnight in tents.

People arrived on foot -- some from towns hundreds of kilometres (miles) away -- and others by trucks and buses. Many were listening to cassettes of Bhutto speeches and reciting verses from the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

PPP provincial leader for Sindh province Nisar Khauro lamented what he called the government's "double standards" following reports that it was negotiating with followers blamed for Bhutto's killing.

"The government has always used double standards and it is playing with the West and the people of Pakistan," Khauro told AFP.

Supporters also gathered in Larkana and in the adjacent village of Naudero, where the Bhutto family ancestral home is located.

The PPP has said it will officially begin campaigning from Thursday for the polls, which have so far seen none of the raucous electioneering that is customary in Pakistan.

With the party reportedly riven by divisions following the killing of its charismatic yet dominating leader, it began earlier this week to try to coalesce support behind Zardari by making public Bhutto's will.

The document names him as her political heir, dispelling rumours that she had actually picked their 19-year-old son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari over her husband, who has been hit by unproven corruption charges.

Bilawal was later chosen by the party as co-chairman, but Zardari is acting as regent while the young man finishes at Oxford University.

Party officials quoted by state media said Bilawal would not be attending the ceremony because of his studies. (AFP)