Pakistan police seek Bhutto aide over murder case

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KARACHI, Oct 24 (Reuters) Pakistani police raided the house of one of Benazir Bhutto's close aides to arrest him over a murder in 1998, but the official was not at home, police said today.

Zulfiqar Mirza, a close friend of Bhutto's husband Asif Ali Zardari, accompanied the former prime minister on her return from eight years of self-imposed exile last week, and has been involved in co-ordinating her security.

Bhutto's movements have been restricted in the aftermath of a suicide attack that killed at least 139 people during her homecoming procession through Karachi last Friday.

While Bhutto and military President Pervez Musharraf have begun a rapprochement as part of a planned transition to civilian-led democracy, the opposition leader has plenty of enemies among Musharraf's political allies.

Pakistan People's Party officials said the police action was politically motivated.

''The police is victimising the people in charge of Benazir Bhutto's security, so that they go underground and can't protect her, and thereby restrict her movement,'' Jameel Soomro, the party's media coordinator, said.

''The police moves on government orders.'' Mirza is wanted in connection with the murder of former Pakistan Steel Mills chairman Sajjad Hussain, who was gunned down three days before he was due to testify before a panel investigating allegations of corruption against Zardari.

President Pervez Musharraf eased the way for Bhutto's return this month by issuing an amnesty to protect her and her husband from prosecution in several corruption charges.

Zardari was imprisoned for eight years before being released in 2004, five years after General Musharraf came to power in a coup that overthrew then prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

There is speculation that Bhutto and Musharraf could share power after a national election, and the United States is believed to be quietly encouraging their partnership.

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.

Musharraf, whose re-election by parliament while still army is the subject of ongoing challenges in the Supreme Court, has promised to quit the army if he is granted a second term.

His position will be weakened after parliamentary elections due by early January unless the ruling PML does better than expected or finds new coalition partners.

Distrust between Bhutto and members of the leading faction of the PML has been plain to see in the wake of the assassination attempt.

While government officials say the attack was carried out by Islamist militants linked to tribal areas where al Qaeda and the Taliban are based, Bhutto says she had informed Musharraf of three influential members of the establishment involved in a plot against her.

Nawaz Sharif, the third main player in Pakistani politics, is still languishing in exile, after his attempted return was blocked in September, though diplomats believe he too could be eventually allowed back.

REUTERS SG RK1429

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