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    South Asia
     Dec 29, 2007
Al-Qaeda claims Bhutto killing
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - ”We terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat mujahideen.” These were the words of al-Qaeda’s top commander for Afghanistan operations and spokesperson Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, immediately after the attack that claimed the life of Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto on Thursday (December 27).

Bhutto died after being shot by a suicide assailant who, according to witnesses, also detonated a bomb that killed himself and up to 20 others at a rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. Bhutto, with Western backing, had been hoping to become prime minister for a third time after general elections next month.




“This is our first major victory against those [eg, Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf] who have been siding with infidels [the West] in a fight against al-Qaeda and declared a war against mujahideen,” Mustafa told Asia Times Online by telephone.

He said the death squad consisted of Punjabi associates of the underground anti-Shi’ite militant group Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, operating under al-Qaeda orders.

The assassination of Bhutto was apparently only one of the goals of a large al-Qaeda plot, the existence of which was revealed earlier this month.

On December 6, a Pakistani intelligence agency tracked a cell phone conversation between a militant leader and a local cleric, in which a certain Maulana Asadullah Khalidi was named. The same day, Khalidi was arrested during a raid in Karachi. The arrest, in turn, led to the arrest of a very high-profile non-Pakistani militant leader, which, it is said, revealed an operation aimed at wiping out “precious American assets” in Pakistan, including Musharraf and Bhutto.

The operation is said to have involved hundreds of cells all over Pakistan to track targets and communicate with their command, which would then send out death squads.

Mustafa referred to a recent address by Bhutto in North West Frontier Province, in which she lambasted Islamic extremism and asked the people to stand against it. Bhutto was the only Pakistani leader who regularly spoke against al-Qaeda.

At the time of her death, Bhutto was vigorously campaigning around the country, following the November 20 announcement of general elections to be held on January 8. She had returned to Pakistan from exile in October, after a US-brokered deal with Musharraf gave her immunity from charges of corruption during her previous terms as prime minister. In return, her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) supported Musharraf’s bid to be re-eleted as president.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan in the face of death threats from Islamist militants. Within 24 hours of landing in Karachi on October 18, she narrowly escaped with her life when two bombs were detonated near her motorcade, killing at least 130 people.

Addressing a press conference the following day, a defiant Bhutto pointed to the involvement of Pakistan's intelligence agencies in the attack.

Bhutto's death ignited violence all over the country, particularly in Sindh, her home province. “They've shut down all the shops, and there is firing all around,” said Abdul Jabbar, who works as a driver in Karachi, Pakistan's business capital. “People are just overcome with grief.”

By 9 pm Thursday, violence had claimed at least five lives in Karachi. Protesters evacuated two trains and set them on fire. Angry mobs attacked police stations and other symbols of state authority. Commuters were reported to be stranded in towns and cities all over the province. In Sukkar, a mob broke into the jail and released all the prisoners.

The assassination and ensuing violence immediately threw into doubt attempts to return Pakistan to democracy after eight years of military rule under Musharraf. Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif announced shortly after the assassination that his party would boycott the elections, and demanded that Musharraf resign immediately.

“The holding of fair and free elections is not possible in the presence of Pervez Musharraf. After the killing of Benazir Bhutto, I announce that the Pakistan Muslim League-N will boycott the elections," Sharif told a news conference.

He urged other parties to join the boycott. If other parties, including the PPP, which is in disarray following the assassination, heed his call, the legitimacy of the January 8 elections will be seriously undermined.

Bhutto’s killing, it would seem, is only the first major incident in al-Qaeda’s war against “American assets”, which is likely to plunge the country into further chaos and divert it from the democratic path.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online. Inter Press Service contributed to this report.)

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