136 killed as blasts rip through crowds welcoming Bhutto

As many as 136 people were killed in Karachi Thursday night by devastating explosions near a truck carrying former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto as crowds welcomed her home, officials said.

Former PM faces dilemma on public appearances

Asmany as 136people were killed in Karachi Thursday night by devastating explosions near atruck carrying former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto as crowds welcomed her home,officials said.

The truck of Pakistan former prime minister Benazir Bhutto is parked after an explosion in Karachi, Pakistan ((B.K.Bangash/Associated Press))
An initialblast was followed by a much larger one just metres from the truck carrying Bhutto,whoarrived inthe countryearlier in the dayaftereight years of self-exile. She was not hurt.

The CBC's Michel Cormier, reporting from Karachi, described the aftermath:

"Workers were sweeping up the debris of the explosion — a huge blast. Everything was black, a lot of traces of smoke and blood, and a few shoes on the street still.

"People kind of shocked and, I would say, despondent, because there was so much hope about Benazir Bhutto returning to Pakistan and getting the country back to some kind of civil society after years of military rule."

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

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 death
tolls, AP said.

An estimated 20,000 security officers had been deployed to protect Bhutto and her convoy as it made its way slowly through the city.

Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto reacts as she disembarks her airplane in Karachi, Pakistan, on Thursday. ((Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press))
Onepolice officersaid evidence at the scene suggested the blast was caused by a suicide bomber. Two police vans escorting Bhutto were destroyed, he said.

The police chief, Farooqi,said 150,000 people were in the streets.

Bhuttowas rushed from the area, he toldDawn News. "She was evacuated very safely and is now in Bilawal House,"hesaid, referring to her residence in Karachi.

There had been threats from pro-Taliban and pro-al-Qaeda militants warning Bhutto not to return.

Shenow faces difficult decisions, Cormier said.

"Does she stay at home, a recluse? Does she not go out and meet the people— to protect them? Does she show she is intimidated, or does she take the chance that there will be other bombs? It's quite a dilemma for her, because she had this whole tour planned of different regions."

Fearing a possible attack by militants, authorities mounted a massive security operation to protect Bhutto as she travelled from the Karachi airport.

She was slowlytravelling onthe truck with a bulletproof glass cubicle to the tomb of Pakistan's founding father, about 15 kilometres away,to make a speech.

But she reportedly ignored police advice by standing atop the truck, instead of behind the bulletproof glass.

Pakistan's interior minister had also expressed concerns over the time she would spend on the road in the convoy, instead preferring she travel to the mausoleum by helicopter.

Canada, UN condemn bombing

Earlier, during her flight to Karachi, Bhutto brushed off fears of an attack by Islamic militants. Radical Islamists have expressed hatred for Bhutto because of her support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

"I am not scared. I am thinking of my mission," she said. "This is a movement for democracy because we are under threat from extremists and militants."

"I counted the hours, I counted the minutes and the seconds, just to see this land, to see the grass, to see the sky," said Bhutto, who wore a white headscarf and clutched prayer beads in her right hand as she descended the plane in Karachi.

"I feel so emotionally overwhelmed. And I hope that I can live up to the great expectations which people here have," she added.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon onThursdaycondemned the bombing.

"The Secretary General strongly condemns this terrorist attack and expresses condolences to the families of the victims," said a statement issued by Ban's spokesperson.

"He trusts that all political forces will act together to strengthen national unity."

Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier also condemned the bombing as "an appalling act of violence." He urged all parties in Pakistan to adhere to the rule of law and to continue to build the conditions for free and fair parliamentary elections.

Jubilant arrival

When she arrived in Pakistan in the early afternoon, jubilant crowds waved flags and thumped drums as Bhutto descended the steps from a commercial flight from Dubai.

Bhutto's dramatic return to Pakistan is in hopes of regaining the post of prime minister for an unprecedented third time. She left the country in 1999 to escape charges of corruption.

A deal with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf will see those charges wiped clean. However, a constitutional amendment would be necessary to allow her to take the post again since Pakistani law currently bars leaders from seeking a third term.

The 54-year-old said she is fighting for democracy and to help the country defeat extremism that has tainted its reputation abroad as a hotbed of terrorism.

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

Bhutto hopes to lead her secular, liberal party, Pakistan Peoples Party, to victory in parliamentary elections in January. She has also been in talks with Musharraf about a possible partnership to run the country.

With files from the Associated Press