Pakistani politics gets dirty after Bhutto attack

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KARACHI, Oct 23 (Reuters) Bad blood between Benazir Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf's allies in Pakistan bubbled to the surface today, after an attack on the opposition leader that killed 139 people four days earlier.

No arrests have been made since last Friday's suicide bomb attack, which government officials swiftly blamed on Islamist militants. An anonymous threat of another suicide attack against Bhutto had been received by her lawyer, an aide said.

''Benazir Bhutto doesn't want democracy to be interrupted and she is not deterred by such threats,'' Sherry Rehman, Pakistan People's Party (PPP) Information Secretary, told reporters.

Bhutto, who came back from eight years of self-imposed exile last Thursday, has said she told General Musharraf that members of the establishment were involved in a conspiracy against her.

Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan revealed the Chief Minister of Punjab province, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, was one of the people named by Bhutto, but said such accusations hurt chances of a rapprochement.

''If this trend of implicating political rivals into false cases continues, what chances for national reconciliation will there be?'' Khan said.

Bhutto is negotiating with Musharraf, who came to power in a coup eight years ago, over a transition to civilian-led democracy. The United States is believed to be quietly encouraging the two to work together.

They are seen as progressive and pro-Western leaders who will support NATO efforts to stabilise Afghanistan and fight al Qaeda militants in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

US Ambassador Anne Patterson met Bhutto for around 30 minutes today, according to PPP officials.

While Bhutto has maintained a high profile, visiting victims in hospital, going to neighbourhoods where support for PPP is strong and meeting the media regularly, the government has been mostly quiet. It is unclear why government leaders have taken a lower profile given the heavy loss of life.

TRADING BARBS Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, leader of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and a close relative of the Punjab chief minister, gave a caustic response to Bhutto's allegations, telling Geo Television that his party will say the PPP leadership had orchestrated the attack to win sympathy.

While speculation persists that Musharraf and Bhutto could share power after elections due in January, Bhutto says such talk is premature -- particularly with the Supreme Court still to rule on whether Musharraf's own re-election by parliament earlier this month should stand, since he contested while still army chief.

Whereas Musharraf's popularity is falling, the hundreds of thousands of people who came out to greet Bhutto when she returned to Karachi on October 18 showed she retains grassroots support in southern Sindh province, where her party is strongest.

Critics had expected allegations of corruption, an expedient amnesty granted by Musharraf, her negotiations with the general, and perceived US backing would cost Bhutto support.

Bhutto was expected to soon visit the town of Larkana, her ancestral home and burial place of her father, Pakistan's first popularly elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

The probe into the attack has made little progress, though a picture of the suspected suicide bomber's head has been released.

Investigators had initially believed an explosion moments before the suicide bomber struck had been caused by a grenade, but police said they were now unsure.

Bhutto has said that shots were fired at the truck she was travelling in, and her security had arrested a man armed with a pistol and another with a suicide vest before the attack, but none of this has been confirmed by police.

''Pakistani police are not to the quality of what you see on TV with CSI -- they don't go round with their little bootees on and gloves,'' said a Western diplomat in Karachi, referring to American television Series ''CSI: Crime Scene Investigation''.


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