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A TV camera captures Benazir Bhutto entering a vehicle moments before the attack that took her life (ARY Television, Pakistan)
The Pakistan government has released a transcript of a conversation it says was intercepted between a senior al-Qaida leader and a militant involved in the assassination yesterday of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
In the exchange, Baitullah Mehsud – a warlord based in the country’s lawless northwest near Afghanistan who had threatened to kill Bhutto on her return to the country in October – offers congratulations for carrying out the slaying of the opposition leader.
“It was a tremendous effort. They were really brave boys who killed her,” Mehsud said, according to the transcript.
Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz said today investigators had resolved the “whole mystery” behind the assassination.
“We have the evidence that al-Qaida and Taliban were behind the suicide attack on Benazir Bhutto,” Nawaz said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said the government recorded an “intelligence intercept” in which Mehsud “congratulated his people for carrying out this cowardly act.”
A Pakistani official told the country’s GEO-TV the suicide bomber belonged to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an al-Qaida-linked Sunni Muslim militant group the government has blamed for hundreds of killings.
The claim, however, has not appeared on Islamist websites where messages from al-Qaida regularly appear.
Meanwhile, as Bhutto was laid to rest today amid a nationwide wave of violence, Pakistani officials asserted the former prime minister was killed when her head hit her vehicle’s sunroof – not by gunfire or shrapnel as previously claimed.
The transcript of the purported intercept is as follows:
Maulvi Sahib (MS): Asalaam Aleikum (Peace be with you)
Baitullah Mehsud (BM): Waleikum Asalam (And also with you)
MS: Chief, how are you?
BM: I am fine.
MS: Congratulations, I just got back during the night.
BM: Congratulations to you, were they our men?
MS: Yes they were ours.
BM: Who were they?
MS: There was Saeed, there was Bilal from Badar and Ikramullah.
BM: The three of them did it?
MS: Ikramullah and Bilal did it.
BM: Then congratulations.
MS: Where are you? I want to meet you.
BM: I am at Makeen (town in South Waziristan tribal region), come over, I am at Anwar Shah’s house.
MS: OK, I’ll come.
BM: Don’t inform their house for the time being.
BM: It was a tremendous effort. They were really brave boys who killed her.
MS: Mashallah (Thank God). When I come I will give you all the details.
BM: I will wait for you. Congratulations, once again congratulations.
MS: Congratulations to you.
BM: Anything I can do for you?
MS: Thank you very much.
BM: Asalaam Aleikum.
MS: Waaleikum Asalaam.
How did she die?
Interior Ministry spokesman Cheema said that while the bomber shot at Bhutto with a pistol, she had no bullet injury. Authorities initially said she was shot, then a surgeon who treated her said she died from the impact of shrapnel on her skull.
Cheema, however, contended today Bhutto was killed when she tried to duck back into her vehicle after the campaign rally. Her skull was fractured, he explained, when shock waves from the blast smashed her head into a lever attached to the sunroof.
Initial reports said Bhutto was shot and killed by a gunman who then blew himself up in the attack. At least 28 more people died and at least 100 were wounded.
The surgeon who treated her, Dr. Mussadiq Khan, said earlier today she died from shrapnel to the skull.
The doctor said Bhutto had no pulse when she arrived at the hospital, and doctors failed to resuscitate her.
Cheema told reporters the medical report confirmed Bhutto died from a shrapnel wound and was not shot.
“No bullet was found in her body,” the Interior Ministry spokesman said.
But Cheema later announced Bhutto died from a skull fracture caused by impact with the vehicle.
A Bhutto aide, however, rejected the government’s explanation.
“It is baseless. It is a pack of lies,” said Farooq Naik, Bhutto’s top lawyer and a senior official in her Pakistan People’s Party.
“Two bullets hit her, one in the abdomen and one in the head,” Naik said. “It was a serious security lapse.”
The Pakistani prime minister’s office has launched a judicial inquiry, and the Ministry of the Interior is setting up a police inquiry, according to Information Minister Nisar Memon.
Despite initial reports, Memon said no decision had been made to postpone the Jan. 8 parliamentary elections, stating, “We remain on course.”
Bhutto was campaigning for the elections at Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh Park and had just left a rally when she was killed.
Probing al-Qaida link
U.S. officials yesterday began looking into a report that al-Qaida’s main spokesman claimed responsibility for Bhutto’s death.
“We terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat (the) mujahadeen,” Mustafa Abu Al-Yazid told Adnkronos International in a phone call from an unknown location.
Al-Yazid is the main al-Qaida commander in Afghanistan. The decision to assassinate Bhutto is believed to have been made by al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, according to the news agency.
Pakistani and foreign Islamist militants who viewed Bhutto as a betrayer of Islam and a pawn of the U.S. repeatedly had threatened to kill her. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, which has had close ties to the Islamists since the 1970s, also is suspect in the assassination.
Mehsud, with close ties to al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban, was an initial prime suspect along with Haji Omar, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
After the October assassination attempt, Bhutto publicized a letter signed by a purported friend of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden threatening to slaughter her like a goat.
Bhutto accused Pakistani authorities of not providing her with sufficient security and hinted that they may have been complicit in the October attack.