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Pakistan Bomb Death Toll Rises To 136

Men remove a body in front of a vehicle carrying of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto at the bomb explosion site in Karachi, October 18, 2007.
QURESHI/AFP/Getty
Pakistan's president on Friday condemned as a "conspiracy against democracy" the suicide bombing that killed up to 136 people and narrowly missed Benazir Bhutto as she launched her political comeback.

The midnight attack shattered ex-premier Bhutto's homecoming procession hours after she returned from exile pledging to end military rule and fight extremism.

Police suspect the bombing is linked to a pro-Taliban warlord based near the Afghan border who had reportedly threatened to attack Bhutto's return, but there was no claim of responsibility.

The devastating attack cast a pall over her talks with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf which have raised the prospect of them forming a moderate, pro-U.S. alliance. Leaders of her Pakistan People's Party were meeting at her Karachi residence Friday, and Bhutto is expected to hold a news conference.

Musharraf was "deeply shocked" by the midnight explosions, which went off near a truck carrying Bhutto through Karachi, tearing victims apart and throwing a fireball into the night sky.

The general "condemned this attack in the strongest possible words. He said this was a conspiracy against democracy," the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan said.

A top provincial security official said Friday that the suicide attack on Benazir Bhutto bore the hallmarks of an al Qaeda-linked, pro-Taliban warlord based near the Afghan border.

The "signature at the blast site and the modus operandi" suggested the involvement of militants linked to warlord Baitullah Mehsud and al Qaeda, said Ghulam Muhammad Mohtarem, the head security official in the province where Mehsud is based.

"We were already fearing a strike from Mehsud and his local affiliates and this were conveyed to the (Bhutto's Pakistan's) People's Party but they got carried away by political exigencies instead of taking our concern seriously," Mohtarem said.

There was no claim of responsibility for the bombing of the former prime minister's convoy, which killed up to 136 people as Bhutto triumphantly paraded through her hometown of Karachi Thursday.

On the eve of Bhutto's arrival, a provincial government official had cited intelligence reports that three suicide bombers linked to Mehsud were in Karachi. The local government had also warned Bhutto could be targeted by Taliban or al-Qaida.

Earlier this month, local media reports quoted Mehsud — probably the most prominent leader of Islamic militants destabilizing its northwestern border regions near Afghanistan — as vowing to greet Bhutto's return to Pakistan with suicide attacks.

President Musharraf is appealing for calm and is promising an exhaustive investigation and stiff punishment for those responsible.

The attack shattered the windows of the truck carrying Bhutto, but police said she was unhurt and was hurried to her house. An Associated Press photo showed a dazed-looking Bhutto being helped away.

CBS News' Farhan Bokhari reports that Bhutto's return to Pakistan had been preceded by intelligence reports suggesting that members of Al Qaeda were planning to target her. Upon her arrival on Thursday, she set aside the security plan to be visible only from behind a bullet proof glass and instead chose to stand on an elevated platform, raising objections from Karachi police officials who said Bhutto had compromised her security.

Authorities had urged her to travel in Karachi by helicopter to reduce the risk of attack. But Bhutto, hated by radical Islamists because she supports the U.S.-led war on terrorism, brushed off the concerns.

"I am not scared. I am thinking of my mission," she had told reporters on the plane. "This is a movement for democracy because we are under threat from extremists and militants."

A senior Pakistani security official in Islamabad said the blasts did appear to be the work of al Qaeda though no one immediately claimed responsibility. "Car bombs of this kind bear the hand prints of al Qaeda," he told CBS News, on the condition that he would not be named.

Officials at six hospitals in Karachi reported 136 dead and around 250 wounded, making it one of the deadliest bombings in Pakistan's history.

Karachi police chief Azhar Farooqi said that 113 people died, including 20 policemen, and that 300 people were wounded. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the differing death tolls.

Police on Friday collected forensic evidence - picking up pieces of flesh and discarded shoes - from the site of the bombing. The truck was hoisted away using a crane. One side of the truck, including a big portrait of the former premier was splattered with blood and riddled with shrapnel holes.

A police investigator, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, said the group of pro-Taliban militant leader Baitullah Mehsud was suspected.

On the eve of Bhutto's arrival, a provincial government official had cited intelligence reports that three suicide bombers linked to Mehsud were in Karachi. The local government had also warned Bhutto could be targeted by Taliban or al-Qaida.

Earlier this month, local media reports quoted Mehsud - probably the most prominent leader of Islamic militants destabilizing its northwestern border regions near Afghanistan - as vowing to greet Bhutto's return to Pakistan with suicide attacks.

Karachi, which lies in the far south of Pakistan but has been buffeted by militant attacks in recent years, was quiet Friday. Schools were closed and traffic was thin, with city residents wary of venturing out.

Unrest broke in two districts but did not appear serious. Hundreds of Bhutto supporters hurled stones at vehicles and shops during a funeral procession for two victims, forcing police to cordon off the area. Elsewhere, Bhutto supporters ordered shops to close and burned tires in the road.

Bhutto had flown home earlier Thursday to lead her Pakistan People's Party in January parliamentary elections after eight years in exile, drawing cheers from crowds that police put at 150,000.

The throngs reflected Bhutto's enduring political clout, but she has made enemies of Islamic militants by taking a pro-U.S. line and negotiating a possible alliance with Musharraf.

Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, said on Dawn News television that he suspected that "elements sitting within the government" who would lose out if Bhutto returned to power were involved in the attack.

He didn't elaborate, though Bhutto has accused conservatives in the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party and the security services of secretly supporting religious extremists.

But Musharraf's camp sounded conciliatory.

Presidential spokesman Rashid Qureshi said he doubted the attack would deflect Bhutto from her course.

"If someone thinks that by spreading this kind of terror they will stop the political process in Pakistan, I don't think that's correct, I don't think that will happen," Qureshi told The AP.

Musharraf believes that "all political forces need to combine to face this threat which is basically the major, major issue that faces Pakistan," he said.

Authorities had warned Bhutto that extremists sympathetic to the Taliban and al Qaeda could target her in Karachi and urged her in vain to use a helicopter to reduce the risk.

"I am not scared. I am thinking of my mission," she had told reporters on the plane from Dubai.

On arrival, she told AP Television News she was fighting for democracy and to help this nuclear-armed country of 160 million people defeat the extremism that gave it the reputation as a hotbed of international terrorism.

"That's not the real image of Pakistan," she said.

Leaving the airport, Bhutto refused to use a bulletproof glass cubicle that had been built atop the truck taking her toward the tomb of Pakistan's founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. An AP photographer who saw the cubicle of the wrecked truck Friday said it appeared to have shrapnel holes from the bombing.

Her procession had been creeping toward the center of Karachi for 10 hours, as supporters thronged her truck, when a small explosion erupted near the front of the vehicle.

That was quickly followed by a larger blast, destroying two escorting police vans.

The former premier had just gone to a downstairs compartment in the truck for a rest when the blast occurred, said Christina Lamb, Bhutto's biographer.

"So she wasn't on top in the open like rest of us, so that just saved her," Lamb told Sky News.

In the aftermath, bodies lay motionless in the street among pools of blood, broken glass, tossed motorcycles and bits of clothing. Some of the injured were rushed on stretchers into a hospital, and others were carried by rescuers in their arms.

The United States, the United Nations and the European Union condemned the attack.

"Extremists will not be allowed to stop Pakistanis from selecting their representatives through an open and democratic process," said Gordon Johndroe, foreign affairs spokesman for U.S. President George W. Bush.

Bhutto had paved her route back to Pakistan through negotiations with Musharraf, a longtime political rival despite their shared liberal values. Their talks yielded an amnesty covering the corruption charges that made Bhutto leave Pakistan.

Musharraf won re-election to the presidency in a controversial vote this month by lawmakers that is being challenged in the Supreme Court. If he is confirmed for a new five-year presidential term, Musharraf has promised to quit the military and restore civilian rule.