x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Scores gather to remember Bhutto

Grieving Pakistanis gather at the tomb of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto a year after her death.

Supporters of Pakistan's slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto arrive to attend a prayer ceremony at the site where she was assassinated in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Saturday, Dec 27 2008.  More than 150,000 people gathered at her mausoleum to mourn the loss of their leader one year ago.
Supporters of Pakistan's slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto arrive to attend a prayer ceremony at the site where she was assassinated in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Saturday, Dec 27 2008. More than 150,000 people gathered at her mausoleum to mourn the loss of their leader one year ago.

More than 150,000 grieving Pakistanis thronged the tomb of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto today, mourning their beloved leader one year after her assassination. A sea of mourners, some wailing and beating their chests in a wrenching outpouring of emotion, flooded through security checkpoints into the graveyard in rural southern Garhi Khuda Bakhsh for the commemoration. But thick fog stranded tens of thousands on the roads leading into the area, prompting authorities to delay the start of the proceedings due at 9am, as they made special arrangements to bring mourners to the site.

Mrs Bhutto, 54, was assassinated on December 27 2007 in a gun and suicide attack at a campaign rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, just two months after returning to Pakistan from exile to vie for a third term in power. Her shocking death threw the world's only nuclear-armed Islamic nation into chaos, sparking violence and leading to months of political turmoil that ended in September when her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, claimed the presidency.

"In the tradition of a true Bhutto, she faced certain death rather than abandon her principles or the people," Mr Zardari said in a message to the nation to mark the anniversary. "The tyrants and the killers have killed her but they shall never be able to kill her ideas, which drove and inspired a generation to lofty aims." The masses travelled by train, bus, lorry, car, bicycle and even on foot to mourn the charismatic, Oxford-educated Mrs Bhutto, the first woman to lead a Muslim nation who was hailed in the West as a face of moderation.

Some slept last night in the open in near-freezing temperatures. Tariq Waseem, a 25-year-old student from southwestern Baluchistan province, walked about 400 kilometres over 10 days with about a dozen friends to be at today's event. But unlike his friends, he walked barefoot. "These are not painful," he said, pointing with pride at blisters covering his soles. "These are a gift from my martyred leader."

Senior local police official Khadim Hussain Rind put the number of mourners at 100,000, but said he expected far more would reach the site later. Ceremonies are expected to culminate with special prayers at 5.20pm - about the time Mrs Bhutto was attacked. About 7,000 police and paramilitary rangers joined by ruling party workers and volunteers have fanned out around the tomb to protect Mr Zardari, who has said he too is a target for extremists like those who killed Mrs Bhutto.

"We do not rule out any threat and we have done all things possible to maintain peace," Mr Rind, one of the point men on security for the event, said. A special wall has been erected around the mausoleum as part of a raft of precautions taken to safeguard Mr Zardari. Closed-circuit cameras have been installed, and mourners were required to pass through metal detectors. All entry and exit routes were cordoned off.

Both Mr Zardari and the United Nations said they hoped a UN investigation would soon be launched into Mrs Bhutto's killing. Pakistani and US officials have pinned the blame on Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, but he denies any involvement. One year on, Pakistan's reverence for Mrs Bhutto continues unabated - television programmes about her life have been running for days, and the government has issued a 10-rupee coin and stamps bearing her portrait.

Hundreds of vendors did a brisk business selling Mrs Bhutto memorabilia including posters, photographs and recordings of her speeches ahead of the ceremony. The government has declared today a national holiday in Mrs Bhutto's honour, and events were scheduled nationwide. Mrs Bhutto is buried alongside her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a former premier who was hanged in 1979 by the country's military regime. Her brothers Shahnawaz and Murtaza, who died in violent circumstances, are also in the tomb.

* AFP