A Bloody Welcome for Bhutto

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Lefteris Pitarakis / AP

The convoy of former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto was attacked in Karachi, Thursday, October 18, 2007. Two explosions went off near the vehicle carrying former Pakistan premier Benazir Bhutto, killing or wounding dozens of people.

Two massive explosions shattered the carnival-like atmosphere of Benazir Bhutto's triumphant return to Pakistan after eight years in self-imposed exile, killing at least 85 and sending more than 75 critically injured to nearby hospitals. The bulletproof truck of the two-time former Prime Minister was rocked by the explosions, which intelligence reports are saying were caused by explosive-laden vehicles parked on the side of the road, about 30 meters away from Bhutto's party. An unconfirmed report said that the first explosion may have been caused by a suicide bomber. Members of Bhutto's entourage escaped with minor injuries, but the crowds lining the path took the full brunt of the blasts. Party members on the truck describe a scene of mayhem and carnage. Body parts and human flesh were scattered across a large radius and a few human torsos could be seen draped across the highway median.

The explosions happened nearly 12 hours after Bhutto's long anticipated arrival in Karachi. Her passage out of the airport, where she was thronged by thousands of supporters, took nearly three hours to cover 100 meters. Once on the streets, her passage was slowed even further by dancing, cheering crowds shouting "Long live Bhutto!" and "Welcome home, Benazir!" The cheers turned to screams as the panicked crowd fled in all directions. Al-Qaeda-linked militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan had threatened to kill Bhutto upon her arrival, and intelligence agencies warned of several militant groups plotting terror attacks in the city.

Aware of the threats against her, scores of young men wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Suicide Sacrificers for Benazir" formed a human security cordon. The Suicide Sacrificers took their volunteer security jobs seriously. "Benazir is the daughter of our great leader [PPP founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto], and he was executed by the army," said 20-year-old student Sheikh Ahad as he waited for her plane to touch down. "Her brothers have been killed. She has sacrificed her family for Pakistan, and now she is sacrificing her own self for the poor of this country. It is only right that we are willing to do the same."

Bhutto supporters arrived from as far away as Abbotabad in the country's northeast and Quetta, on the western border with Afghanistan. They arrived in buses and cars, on foot and by donkey cart. As dawn broke on the morning of her arrival, the crowds awoke from the highway medians where they had passed the night in hopes of getting a glimpse of a leader few had seen other than from a television screen. Babur Khan, a 28-year-old employee at the Karachi stock exchange said excitedly, "She will bring employment, she will restore democracy, and she will bring peace. We are proud to have a woman as a leader. Our children's future in her hands. She is our mother." "We are emotionally charged," said Mohammad Aslam. "We come from all over Sindh to greet our elder sister. Benazir Bhutto is in my heart."

Not all in the crowd were fans. Raheel Iqbal, the former information secretary for the Karachi wing of the People's party said that Bhutto had betrayed her father's cause. "Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's manifesto was anti-imperialist, anti-general and anti dictatorship. We spent years in jail to stand up for this manifesto, and now Benazir arrives with American support, and has been making meetings with General Musharraf. Democracy does not require a deal with a dictator." Bhutto has returned to Pakistan with the tacit support of President General Pervez Musharraf, who took power in 1999. Bhutto and Musharraf have been negotiating the terms of her arrival for several months. In exchange for her party's support, the president — whose recent election for a second term in office is still being debated by the supreme court, and is predicated on his promise to step down as army chief before taking the oath of office — has passed a bill that would grant her amnesty for the troubling corruption charges that forced her to flee in 1999, charges she denies. The Supreme Court is also debating the validity of Musharraf's amnesty offer.

But for the throngs that danced around her specially designed bulletproof Bhutto-mobile as it made its way from the airport to the shrine of Pakistan's founder, her arrival was a moment of celebration and a reason to hope. "This is an historic moment in the history of Pakistan," said Ali Shah, who came from the troubled North West Frontier Province in a journey that lasted nearly three days. "We have been protesting this military government for eight years, and now Benazir has returned to resume civilian rule. She has forced the general to remove his uniform." But he cautions, she also will have to live up to her new promise of jobs, shelter and food. "If she doesn't fulfill her promises, we will continue to protest." With reporting by Irfan Ali/Karachi