Pakistan erupts in violence as election is thrown into doubt

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The Independent Online

Violence raged across Pakistan yesterday in the angry aftermath of Benazir Bhutto's assassination, sending the country into even deeper turmoil and pushing it closer towards possible breakdown.

As Ms Bhutto was buried in her ancestral home in Sindh province, more than 30 people died in incidents across the country as trains, banks and other buildings were set alight and troops were deployed to help restore order. With smoke billowing from countless fires in the southern port city of Karachi, troops there and elsewhere were given orders to shoot violent protesters on sight. A mob of 2,000 people set alight a police station and in Hyderabad at least 25 banks and 100 vehicles were aflame.

"Since last night, a lot of damage has been caused. Shops, cars and government buildings are being burnt," said a senior Karachi police official, Azhar Ali Farooqi. But large parts of the city were deserted as people stayed inside, and with most, if not all, petrol stations closed there were few cars on the streets. All public buildings were closed and many flights in and out of the city's airport were cancelled.

In the central city of Multan, about 7,000 people ransacked seven banks and a fuel station and engaged with police who responded to their stone-throwing with tear gas. In Islamabad, about 100 protesters burnt tyres in one of the city's business areas.

Reports from Ms Bhutto's home district of Larkana said hundreds of shops and vehicles were still smouldering. Many of the countless thousands of protesters were shouting anti-government slogans and blaming Mr Musharraf for Ms Bhutto's death.

In the city of Peshawar, about 4,000 supporters of Ms Bhutto rallied and several hundred ransacked offices, shouting, "Musharraf dog" and "Bhutto was alive yesterday, Bhutto is alive today".

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Javed Iqbal Cheema, told reporters in Islamabad that "vested groups" and criminals were taking advantage of the situation to loot and rob, particularly banks.

But it was equally clear that Ms Bhutto's death and the government's alleged failure to protect her from the assassin had ignited an anger that will not quickly dissipate.

For its part, the government announced two separate investigations into the gun and suicide bomb attack, one by a high court judge and another by the security forces.

It also blamed the attack, which killed 20 other people and injured many more, on a three-man assassination team dispatched by al-Qa'ida. Officials released a transcript of a purported conversation between a militant leader and a Muslim cleric the government said it had intercepted.

According to the transcript, the militant leader, Baitullah Mehsud, told the unidentified cleric: "It was a spectacular job. They were very brave boys who killed her."

Alongside the wide-ranging violence, Ms Bhutto's death has created fresh political turmoil for which there appears no easy salve. The elections for which she was campaigning when she was killed are scheduled in less than two weeks and, despite opposition politicians saying they will boycott the ballot, the authorities said yesterday there were no immediate plans to postpone proceedings.

The interim Prime Minister, Mohammedmian Soomro, said the government would consult with all political parties but that "right now the elections stand where they were".

Yet to hold an election in the present situation seems utterly untenable, with many observers raising questions about President Pervez Musharraf's ability or willingness to provide meaningful security to the various candidates.

Underscoring the vulnerability of those involved in the election, six people were killed at an election rally in the Swat valley, where the local candidate for the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q party was campaigning. The candidate was among those killed in the attack, in a part of Pakistan that has seen numerous similar incidents in recent months.