A TV grab of Musharrafs address after Benazirs assassination. (PTI)
Rawalpindi, Dec. 27: A suicide attack with bullets and bombs today killed Benazir Bhutto as she drove away from a campaign rally, virtually wiping out a political dynasty and leaving Pakistan politics bereft of its most charismatic leader.
The assassination threw the January 8 elections into jeopardy, especially with Benazirs fellow former Prime Minister and rival, Nawaz Sharif, declaring his party would boycott the polls which could no longer be free and fair.
The threat of violent protests by Benazirs supporters hung over the entire country with reports saying mobs had targeted cars, banks, government stores and private shops in many cities and towns.
President Pervez Musharraf, being accused on the streets for the assassination of his strongest possible challenger, declared three days of mourning and blamed Islamic terrorists for the attack.
This is a great tragedy which I cannot describe in words, Musharraf said. Pakistan and the nation faces the greatest threat from these terrorists.
The 54-year-old Benazir, a mother of three, was leaving after addressing thousands of people at Liaquat Bagh in Rawalpindi, where the military is headquartered and Musharraf lives, around 5.15pm. As her car reached the gates, supporters stopped her. Accounts of what exactly happened after that varies.
I saw a smiling Benazir emerging from the vehicles roofÖ. Then I saw a thin, young man jumping towards her vehicle and opening fire, said Sardar Qamar Hayyat, a leader from Benazirs Pakistan Peoples Party who was about 10 metres away.
Moments later, I saw her speeding vehicle going away. Then I heard a blast and fell down.
Some police officers said the assassin fired three shots, hitting her in the head and neck, before blowing himself up and showering Benazir with shrapnel.
But some PPP officials said the bullets came from a sniper in a nearby building, and that the car moved on for another 50 metres before the suicide bomber struck.
The car sped to the Rawalpindi General Hospital, where doctors said they tried to revive her for 35 minutes but she had shrapnel wounds and head injuries and was in heart failure. They could not confirm if she had bullet injuries.
Benazir, a leading contender to be the next Prime Minister after the January elections, was declared dead at 6.16pm. At least 20 more people were killed in the attack.
PPP supporters at the hospital exploded in anger, smashing the glass door at the emergency unit. Others burst into tears.
Some began chanting, Killer, killer, Musharraf and a few stoned cars outside. Many questioned the security provided to Benazir.
A suicide bomber had targeted the former Prime Minister on October 18 hours after her return from a self-imposed eight-year exile, killing more than 140 people and narrowly missing her.
Benazir was killed just a few kilometres from the site where her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, also a former Prime Minister, was hanged in 1979 by military ruler Zia-ul Haq. Of her two brothers, Shahnawaz was poisoned in 1985 and Murtaza was gunned down in 1996 ó a murder in which his family had implicated Benazir.
As Benazir addressed the rally today, she was flanked by a massive picture of her father.
The PPP leader had become an appealing solution for Washington, whose frustration has been growing over Musharrafs shortcomings. She was openly critical of Musharrafs ineffectiveness at dealing with militants and welcomed US involvement, unlike Sharif.
Although Islamic militants are the first suspects ó they had repeatedly threatened to butcher Benazir ó Pakistans security agencies, too, will come under the glare.