ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Pakistani court on Saturday issued an arrest warrant for exiled former president Pervez Musharraf in connection with the 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, officially implicating him for first time in the death of the former prime minister and rival.
Bhutto, who was an opponent of Musharraf's rule, was killed in a gun and suicide bomb attack after an election rally in the city of Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007, weeks after she returned to Pakistan following years in self-imposed exile.
Her assassination was one of the most shocking events in Pakistan's turbulent history and remains shrouded in mystery.
"The court has issued an arrest warrant and asked that he (Musharraf) should be produced before the court during the next hearing on February 19," said Musharraf spokesman Mohammad Ali Saif, adding that Musharraf is accused of not providing adequate security for Bhutto.
"There is a frivolous allegation, a baseless allegation... that he was involved in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto."
Since Musharraf has limited support within Pakistan, the arrest warrant is unlikely to stir up a backlash against the government of this unstable U.S. ally where a coalition headed by the Pakistan People's Party of the late Bhutto is in power.
Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, is now president and is struggling to cope with the multiple challenges, including a stubborn Taliban insurgency and a stagnant economy.
Saif said Musharraf would cooperate with the judiciary if asked to recount his version of events, but did not say if he would appear in court.
The former military chief, who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1999, has lived in self-imposed exile since he stepped down under threat of impeachment in 2008. He spends most of his time in London and Dubai.
Prosecutor Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali said the warrant had been issued on the recommendations of a joint investigation team which "had attached evidence" against Musharraf and declared him an absconder. He did not elaborate.
Shafqat Mahmood, a political analyst, described the arrest warrant as a "symbolic gesture" that would have no impact on Pakistani politics.
"Nothing is happening. Musharraf actually doesn't mean much in Pakistani politics. We are making too much of him," he said.
Musharraf, who become embroiled in a row with the judiciary and briefly imposed a state of emergency in 2007, has said he realized his popularity had plummeted because of some wrong decisions he had made in the last year of his presidency.
A U.N. report said no one believed the 15-year-old suicide bomber who killed Bhutto acted alone, and the failure to examine her death effectively appeared to be deliberate, but the commission did not say who it believed was guilty.
In October, Musharraf apologized to Pakistan for mistakes he made in office and said he would return to the country as the new head of a political party in time for elections due by 2013.
The warrant for Musharraf's arrest follows a similar court order in December for the arrest of two senior police officers on allegations they failed to provide adequate security for Bhutto before her assassination.
A report by a U.N. commission of inquiry released last year said any credible investigation into Bhutto's killing should not rule out the possibility that members of Pakistan's military and security establishment were involved.
It heavily criticized Pakistani authorities, saying they had "severely hampered" the investigation.
Musharraf, himself the target of at least two bomb attacks, has repeatedly dismissed suggestions he, the security agencies or military were involved in killing his old rival.
Lawyers say if he were to return to Pakistan Musharraf could face a number of court cases, including over the death of a Baluch separatist leader and violation of the constitution.
He could also risk assassination by Islamist militants seeking revenge for crackdowns he ordered against them.
(Reporting by Augustine Anthony and Sheree Sardar; Editing by Michael Georgy and Miral Fahmy)