Deadly blasts strike homecoming of former Pakistani PM

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto at the Karachi airport on Thursday.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto at the Karachi airport on Thursday.

KARACHI, Pakistan (CBS/AP) -- Two bombs exploded Thursday night near a truck carrying former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on her triumphant return to Pakistan after eight years in exile, killing at least 108 people, an official said. Party workers and police said Bhutto was unhurt.

Associated Press photographer B.K. Bangash at the scene said he saw between 50 and 60 dead or badly injured people. He said some of the bodies were in parts.

An initial small explosion was followed by a huge blast just feet from the front of the truck carrying Bhutto during a procession through Karachi. The blast shattered windows in her vehicle and set a police escort vehicle on fire.

Those traveling atop the truck with Bhutto climbed down, with one man jumping off while others used a ladder. Bhutto's lawyer, Sen. Babar Awan, said that the former premier was safe.

Karachi police chief Azhar Farooqi told Dawn News that Bhutto was rushed from the area under pre-laid contingency plans.

"She was evacuated very safely and is now in Bilawal House," Farooqi told Dawn News television, referring to Bhutto's residence in Karachi.

A senior official from her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) told CBS News that Bhutto "was not in great danger at any time after the blast. Thank god she is safe".

Officials at four hospitals in Karachi reported casualty figures. Dr Seemi Jamali at Jinnah Hospital said it had 19 dead from the blast, and of the 70 wounded, between 20 and 25 were in critical condition. Dr Faisal at Liaqat National Hospital, who gave only one name, reported 30 killed and 80 wounded, many critically.

Footage from the scene of the blasts showed bodies on the ground, lying motionless, plus a dozen or more injured who were moving. At least one vehicle was burning.

Several motorcycles also lay on their sides. Flames burned in the center of the street after the explosions.

Scores of people, mostly men wearing white robes, fled down the street after the blast.

Benazir Bhutto was staging a dramatic homecoming Thursday from eight years in exile, greeting some 150,000 ecstatic supporters as she launching a political comeback that could see her team up with Pakistan's U.S.-backed military president.

CBS News' Farhan Bokhari reports that Ms. 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, Ms 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."

Bokhari reports that her convoy of several hundred trucks, buses and cars had been creeping along at midnight en route to her family home - a 15 mile journey that normally takes about half an hour. Bhutto had been on the road more than twelve hours due to the multitudes of supporters blocking traffic.

CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller reported National Security Council Spokesman Gordon Johdroe's response to the violence on behalf of the American government.

"The United States condemns the violent attack in Pakistan and mourns the loss of innocent life there," Johdroe said. "Extremists will not be allowed to stop Pakistanis from selecting their representatives through an open and democratic process."

Bhutto, a two-time former prime minister, wept as she emerged from the plane that brought her from Dubai to Karachi. At the airport, she climbed aboard the roof of a truck and began a triumphant, snail-paced procession through Pakistan's largest city.

"I counted the hours, the minutes and the seconds just to see this land, sky and grass," Bhutto told AP Television News at the airport.

She said 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.

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.

"That's not the real image of Pakistan. The people that you see outside are the real image of Pakistan. These are the decent and hardworking middle-classes and working classes of Pakistan who want to be empowered so they can build a moderate, modern nation."

Bhutto, who fled Pakistan in the face of corruption charges in 1999, has returned at a moment of great uncertainty.

With parliamentary elections due in January, she hopes to campaign for a record third premiership. However, analysts say she has risked her popularity by compromising with its unpopular president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

CBS News correspondent Sheila MacVicar reports Bhutto is seen as a now-present threat to the Islamic extremists based in Pakistan's border region with Afghanistan. Several groups threatened to assassinate her upon her arrival in the country.

Authorities deployed thousands of security forces to protect the 54-year-old leader of the secular, liberal Pakistan's People Party from possible attack by radicals. But the precautions failed to deter her party from mounting a spirited street party.

Hundreds of buses had disgorged crowds of supporters ranging from members of Pakistan's minority Christian and Hindu communities to Baluch tribesmen with flowing white turbans. 

Men banged on drums, shook maracas and performed traditional dances along her planned route to the tomb of Pakistan's founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, where she planned to make a speech.

Crowds chanted "Prime Minister Benazir!", showered her with flowers, and waved her party's red, black and green flags as her truck inched forward.

Bhutto, who waved and smiled, was squeezed between other party bigwigs at the front of the truck rather than in a bulletproof cubicle toward the rear. Still, as darkness fell, armed guards began escorting the truck.

Azad Bhatti, a 35-year-old poultry farmer from the southern city of Hyderabad, said he had "blind faith" in Bhutto's leadership.

"When Benazir Bhutto is in power there is no bomb blast because she provides jobs and there is no frustration among the people," he said.

Bhutto paved her route back in negotiations with Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup. Musharraf is promising to give up his command of Pakistan's powerful army if he secures a new term as president.

Businessman opposed to BhuttoThe talks have yielded an amnesty covering the corruption cases that made Bhutto leave Pakistan in the first place, and could see the archrivals, encouraged by Washington, form an alliance against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

"Benazir Bhutto has set off a new wave in this country," a Western ambassador in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital told CBS News. "She can be a future ally for Musharraf, but she can also be a formidable enemy," said the ambassador, who spoke to Bokhari on condition of anonymity.

Former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Howard Schaffer told CBS News; "You have a situation where two people, who are well known to have considerable distrust for one another, are entering into some kind of arrangement. Will it last? It seems to me that it's doubtful."

"Maybe it will, and I hope it will, but I have misgivings about that," added Schaffer, who is currently Director of Studies at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino on Thursday declined to comment directly on Bhutto's return but said the U.S. wanted "a peaceful, democratic Pakistan, an Islamic state that is a moderate force in the region, and one that can be an ally to help us fight extremism and radicalism."

Bhutto, whose two elected governments between 1988 and 1996 were toppled amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement, hopes to lead her party to victory in January.

A senior Pakistani government official said any power sharing agreement with Musharraf was irrelevant until after elections planned for the first half of January. "How can you know the strength of any political party or leader until they have been through the election process," said the official, who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity.

But many Pakistanis are skeptical that Bhutto can meet her promises of jobs and security. MacVicar reports that despite her immense popularity within her own party, she is still a divisive figure in Pakistan.

"People are intelligent now, they don't buy this rubbish," said Kamran Saleen, a 38-year-old businessman who lives near Karachi airport.

The crowd seemed far smaller than the 3 million Bhutto claimed had turned out to welcome her. About 150,000 people showed up, said a provincial official on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the figure.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz welcomed Bhutto's return, saying it would improve the political climate and help democracy to "flourish."

But Musharraf, who had urged Bhutto to delay while he dealt with legal challenges to his continued rule, stayed silent, while a government spokesman claimed her rally was a flop.

"It is the PPP workers' response and not the public response and even the workers' response is much less than what she was expecting," Information Minister Muhammad Ali Durrani said.

Still, the gathering showed Bhutto's party machinery remained intact despite her long absence.

The hope is that a deal with Musharraf - controversial in and of itself - can cement her political backing among the wider Pakistani populace, driving the country back toward democratic, civilian rule, reports MacVicar.

Authorities had urged her to delay her return, warning of possible suicide attacks. Police used electronic jammers to prevent anyone detonating a remote-controlled bomb near her convoy. 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 told an AP reporter on the plane.

Musharraf has seen his popularity plunge recently, and the rapprochement with Bhutto appears aimed at salvaging his political base.

He was easily re-elected as president by lawmakers Oct. 6. However, the Supreme Court is examining the legality of the victory and the corruption amnesty.

Bhutto said she doubted the judges would stop either, but acknowledged her talks with Musharraf had a way to go.

Bhutto wants a constitutional amendment to lift a bar on anyone serving more than two terms as prime minister and safeguards to keep the January ballot fair.

"The big thing is I'm back home and I'm glad that Gen. Musharraf's regime has not interrupted my welcome," she said. "While there has been some small progress, there is a lot more yet that needs to be done."

Posted by LS

CBS and Associated Press contributed to this report.