Fall from grace marks the last hurrah of the Bhutto dynasty

Pakistan power politics: Prime Minister toppled with military backing after refusing to resign. Tim McGirk reports
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The Independent Online
Lahore - The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, was toppled yesterday in a swift constitutional coup with full backing from the military.

The President, Farooq Leg- hari, for decades a loyal friend of the Bhutto family, dissolved the country's national and provincial assemblies at 1am yesterday morning.

Earlier on Monday, Mr Leghari had spent six hours trying to persuade her to resign, insisting that her bunglings and nepotism had rotted out her 34-month old government. "This is your way of getting rid of us," Ms Bhutto reportedly retorted, "No, I won't do it."

Just as Ms Bhutto was pre-paring to sleep, troops closed in on her Islamabad mansion. Her telephone lines were cut, along with those of her cabinet ministers and advisers. The ex- prime minster spent yesterday under virtual house arrest.

The plug was also pulled on all cellular phones across the country. Throughout Pakistan, the army and the para-military Rangers guarded television and radio installations and sealed off airports. Ms Bhutto's controversial husband and investment minister, Asif Zardari, 45, was arrested as he dined in the governor's old colonial palace in Lahore. Mr Zardari was one of 29 politicians and top police officials detained. Few Pakistanis are sorry to see Ms Bhutto go. Her husbandwas probably the most hated man in Pakistan, and Ms Bhutto had come to be as detested inside her country as she was respected abroad for combating the rise of Islamic militancy in South Asia. Her exit in disgrace may finish off the Bhutto dynasty. It has certainly fractured her Pakistan People's Party, perhaps beyond repair.

Ms Bhutto's biggest mistake, many Pakistanis believe, was marrying Mr Zardari back in 1987. A bumptious feudal lord, Mr Zardari was accused by political foes of amassing not millions, but hundreds of millions, through corruption and kickbacks, but none of the accusations has yet stuck. Army intelligence yesterday flew him to an undisclosed location in Islamabad where he is believed to be facing interrogation. Several newspapers claim Mr Zardari secretly bought a pounds 2.5m mansion in Surrey and stocked it with furniture and antiques sent from Karachi in crates labelled "mangoes".

Worst of all, Mr Zardari has been named as a suspect in the murder on 20 September of Ms Bhutto's younger brother, Murtaza. It was the killing of Murtaza at a police roadblock on a dark empty street in Karachi, that seems to have convinced Mr Leghari to end her reign. Ms Bhutto and her brother were political rivals, yet few suspect her of complicity; on the night of the murder, she rushed into the Karachi hospital barefoot, out of respect, and her cries of grief spilled from the hospital morgue for 45 minutes before she was finally pulled off her brother's bloodied corpse.

A few days later, Ms Bhutto enraged Mr Leghari by "insinuating" that the presidency and secret services had plotted to assassinate Murtaza - in a vain attempt, diplomats in Islamabad said, to deny that her husband might have been embroiled in the murder. Ms Bhutto later apologised to the President, but the damage was done.

After obtaining sanction and assistance from the army chief, General Jahangir Karamat, Mr Leghari sacked Ms Bhutto. Mr Zardari may face criminal charges for his alleged involvement in Murtaza's death. Murtaza's Lebanese- born widow, Ghinva, said recently: "My husband used to call him "Asif Baba and the 40 Thieves". Nobody but my husband dared to confront him."

Murtaza's assassination was just one in a long list of grievances used by Mr Leghari to justify Ms Bhutto's dismissal. The President accused her government of corruption, subverting the courts, and carrying out extra-judicial arrests and kidnapping in the southern port of Karachi, where security forces are trying to quell unrest among a large community of Muslim immigrants from India, known as Mohajirs. To celebrate Ms Bhutto's downfall, Mohajir men danced in Karachi's lanes and fired off Kalashnikovs.

Mr Leghari named Malik Meraj Khalid, an intellectual and former assembly speaker, as Prime Minister to head a pared-down caretaker cabinet of technocrats, a newspaper editor, a lawyer, a retired general, and two politicians, one from Bhutto's party and one from the opposition, Pakistan Muslim League. The President promised elections on 3 February, once the corrupt politicians have been rooted out.

But Mr Leghari's statement seemed to be a sinister echo of a past promise made by the late dictator, General Zia ul-Haq. The general had given identical assurances when he grabbed power in 1977 and held on for 11 years, until he was killed in a mysterious plane crash. But friends of Mr Leghari credit him with a sense of duty and a long memory: throughout his long career in politics, he was several times jailed for crusading against military regimes.

Corruption is so pervasive that some Pakistanis doubt that Mr Leghari and his vigilantes can succeed. Sherry Rehman, editor of a Karachi news magazine, the Herald, said: "There's widespread anxiety over how genuine this clean-up of politicians will be. The same old faces keep coming back."

Under Ms Bhutto's command, the country has sunken to near penury. The Karachi street wars scared off many foreign investors and often closed the port. Visiting businessmen complained that few government deals went through without having to pay off huge bribes.

According to some economists, inflation unofficially had climbed to above 20 per cent and was still rising. With no moral authority at the top, corruption has seeped down to all levels of Pakistani society. While poor Pakistanis were suffering the economic squeeze, the local press were busy with exposes on the Bhuttos' new mansion in England.

In late October, stories began to circulate that Mr Zardari planned to flee into exile. It turned out that he had only left for a short medical check-up in London, but the false rumour dented the Bhutto family's credibility even further. Even Mr Zardari's decision to shave off his rakish moustache was seen as proof he was plotting to slip out of the country incognito.

Did Mr Zardari order Murtaza's assassination? Undeniably, the two hated each other. But two other theories on Murtaza's death are making the rounds: first, that the Kara-chi police at the roadblock were provoked into firing by Murtaza and his bodyguards. That is the official version, but no police died in the supposed shoot-out.

A senior police officer and key witness was later found dead of a gunshot wound; police insisted it was suicide, but a coroner's report proved this would have been a feat of considerable gymnastics as he had been shot from five feet away.

The second theory is one Ms Bhutto clings to, that elements within the Pakistani security forces killed Murtaza and are trying to pin the blame on Mr Zardari as a way to trigger her demise. If Ms Bhutto is correct, than her foes' plot has worked.