UN, Pakistan agree on Bhutto probe
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UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi have agreed on a full and impartial investigation into the Dec 2007 assassination of former Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto.
More than six months after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani government announced it had reached a tentative deal to set up a UN probe to investigate the killing of the former Pakistani prime minister.
At a press conference in Islamabad Thursday, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had responded “positively” to the request for an investigation. But further discussions regarding details of the probe were still needed, he added.
Bhutto was killed at a campaign rally in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi Dec. 27, 2007 in a brazen attack that shocked the nation and sparked numerous questions on what exactly caused her death and who were the perpetrators of the attack.
A UN statement released shortly after the announcement said a broad understanding was reached on the nature and composition of the proposed panel, as well as on safeguards to ensure “the objectivity, impartiality and independence” of the inquiry.
Controversy has dogged the investigation of the former leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) ever since footage of the shooting and suicide bombing attack hit the airwaves in the shocked aftermath of her death.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has accused Baitullah Mehsud, an al Qaeda-linked militant believed to be based in the country’s lawless tribal zones, of plotting the attack. In interviews with local journalists, Mehsud has denied any involvement in the killing.
The PPP, which is now headed by Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, had demanded an international investigation by the United Nations. The PPP now heads the country’s coalition government.
But some Pakistani policy experts maintain the PPP’s current position on a UN probe is not justified. “When the PPP first made the call, it was not in the government,” notes Ejaz Haider, op-ed editor of Daily Times, Pakistan’s leading independent English-language daily. “The PPP is now in government and there is no reason for the government to say the UN needs to investigate the case because it is now squarely within their purview.”
Bombs or bullets?
Musharraf had initially refused to sanction a UN probe and had instead invited investigators from Scotland Yard to assist in the assassination inquiry.
In their report, Scotland Yard investigators said Bhutto had died from head injuries sustained due to the bomb blast, dispelling rumors that the 54-year-old Pakistani politician had died of bullet wounds.
But the PPP has rejected the report and has accused the then-Pakistani government of failing to provide adequate security for Bhutto.
The popular former prime minister had survived an attack at a rally in the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi on Oct. 18, 2007, the day she returned to Pakistan following a self-imposed exile.
Her close ties to Washington and the fact that she was a Shia Muslim in a country beset by Shia-Sunni violence had made her a high profile target for Sunni Muslim extremists in the country.
Bhutto was standing upright in an open car at the crowded Rawalpindi election rally when an assailant opened fire. Seconds later, a huge bomb blast was heard at the scene, scattering the panicked crowd.
Several PPP officials have maintained that Bhutto died of gunshot wounds sustained before the suicide blast. If that version were found to be true, it would open questions about how an assailant managed to get within range of one of the country’s highest security targets.
Opening a ‘Pandora’s box’ on the war on terror
In the tense aftermath following Bhutto’s assassination, her party had demanded an UN-mandated investigation citing the precedent of the UN probe into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri.
But that, said Haider, was made based on the alleged involvement of a third state party – Syria, in the Hariri case – and the fact that domestic Lebanese law did not have the provisions to summon Syrian officers for an investigation.
Given that there have been no allegations of any third nation state involvement in Bhutto’s assassination, notes Haider, the call for a UN probe “opens a Pandora’s box” within and outside Pakistan.
“The PPP is essentially saying that as a government, we are ineffective,” said Haider. “It’s saying that we have no control of our own government and rogue agencies in the country.”
“Rogue agency” is the term commonly used to characterize the shadowy network of the ISI, Pakistan’s secretive intelligence agency, which is often referred to as “a state within a state”.
The acknowledgment of the government’s ineffectiveness, said Haider, had wide implications for Pakistan’s efforts on the US-led “war on terror.”
“The international community can turn around and question the government’s effectiveness in fighting the war on terror and the issue of Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty gets called into question,” said Haider.
Frustrated over Pakistan’s perceived failure to contain the militancy in its border tribal zones from spilling into neighbouring Afghanistan, the Afghan and US governments have warned of strikes into Pakistan’s lawless border areas. Islamabad however has consistently warned that such attacks would be viewed as a breach of Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty.
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