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UN agrees to investigate Bhutto killing

The UN chief will set up an independent commission to identify the killers of the former Pakistan leader.

Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the foreign minister of Pakistan, is seen at UN headquarters in New York, on July 10, 2008.
Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the foreign minister of Pakistan, is seen at UN headquarters in New York, on July 10, 2008.

UNITED NATIONS // The UN chief will set up an independent commission to identify the killers of the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto "with a view to bring them to justice." The agreement was confirmed by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office moments after the Pakistan foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, announced it. The two had met briefly in private just beforehand. "The objectives are for the commission to identify the culprits, perpetrators, organisers and financiers of the assassination," said Mr Qureshi.

Determining who was behind Ms Bhutto's killing could bring clarity and determination to Pakistan's fragile coalition government, which sought the inquiry. It also could help stabilise a nation that is a key US ally in its fight against terrorism, but is seen as increasingly in disarray with an influx of insurgents joining with al Qa'eda and other militant groups in Pakistan's remote tribal and mountainous areas.

Ms Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, the leader of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP), now runs Pakistan. He too has been consumed by efforts to remove President Pervez Musharraf. But the military is the main force propping up the nation. Half the ministers left the cabinet in May, bickering over the fate of judges dismissed by Mr Musharaff last year. Suspicions about Ms Bhutto's death have been cast far and wide, a further reason for the government's pressing to clear up the matter. Mr Qureshi said that Mr Ban would appoint "well-respected, eminent people" to the independent commission.

"We have reached an understanding, and there is a concrete decision on that," the foreign minister said. "What is being discussed and further consultations are required are on the modalities." Mr Ban's office also said in a statement that "broad understanding had been reached" on the nature of the commission, including: how to pay for it; who its members should be; how to protect its independence and impartiality; and that its members should have unfettered access to the information it needs.

But Mr Ban said he would have to talk further with Pakistan and other UN officials to hammer out all the details. Mr Qureshi said he believed Mr Ban had authority without the UN Security Council's approval to set up a commission to try to identify the culprits in Ms Bhutto's assassination as quickly as possible. But Mr Qureshi also said some council members he spoke with were supportive of establishing a commission.

"The broad understanding is going to be that it should be done in the shortest possible time, so that we do not want it sort of a lingering thing, going on for years," Mr Qureshi said. Ms Bhutto died in a gun and suicide bomb attack on Dec 27 as she left an election rally in the city of Rawalpindi. Her death shocked the world and Pakistan, fanning revulsion at rising militant violence and theories that Pakistan's powerful spy agencies were involved. It also helped propel her party to victory in February elections, and since then the fledgling coalition government has made a UN probe into who was behind the killing a top priority.

Mr Qureshi added: "We have said that we will give unhindered access to sources of relevant information." The previous government and the CIA quickly accused Baitullah Mehsud, a Pakistani militant commander often blamed for suicide attacks, of orchestrating the killing. Pakistan's Interior Ministry released a wiretap in which Mr Mehsud associates purportedly congratulated each other for her death. Ms Bhutto had called for Pakistan to redouble its efforts against Islamic extremism. Ms Bhutto's party has argued that the UN should probe the killing; given Mr Mehsud's alleged links to al Qa'eda and because of the huge political controversy that surrounds the case in Pakistan.

* AP