(Updates death toll, White House on election timing)
By Zeeshan Haider
ISLAMABAD, Dec 29 (Reuters) - Benazir Bhutto’s party challenged the Pakistani government’s version of the opposition leader’s assassination as fresh violence on Saturday stoked fears that Jan. 8 elections could be put off.
Al Qaeda-linked militants denied being behind the killing of the 54-year-old former prime minister although the government of nuclear-armed Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in fighting terrorism, had said on Friday it had proof of their involvement.
Bhutto’s party dismissed the government account, saying there was no hard evidence and President Pervez Musharraf’s embattled administration was trying to cover up its failure to protect her.
In renewed violence, three Bhutto supporters were shot dead. The death toll stood at 44 since her assassination in a gun and bomb attack on Thursday.
A close aide who prepared Bhutto’s body for burial dismissed as "ludicrous" a government theory that she died after hitting her head on a sunroof during the suicide attack.
Sherry Rehman, a spokeswoman for Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), said Bhutto was shot in the head. But the government stuck to its version, saying Bhutto’s party was welcome to exhume her corpse to check.
Pakistanis remained on edge on Saturday after protesters torched shops, lorries, welfare centres and ambulances overnight. She was laid to rest on Friday.
"There’s a lot of rioting going on in my neighbourhood, Clifton. Everything has been burned up. Shops have been looted," Ali Khan, 36, country manager for Audi Pakistan, told Reuters as he stood outside his Audi garage in Karachi’s business district.
Masked gunmen in the city shot dead a 27-year-old man wearing a tunic made from the PPP flag on Saturday. He had just shouted "Bhutto is great" while returning from the mausoleum where Bhutto was buried on Friday, police said.
Security forces shot dead two others among 400 PPP activists trying to break into an oilfield facility near Hyderabad. Four men were shot dead in another incident in Karachi.
Late on Friday, Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema told a news conference: "We have intelligence intercepts indicating that al Qaeda leader Baitullah Mehsud is behind (Bhutto’s) assassination."
However, a spokesman for Mehsud denied the claim.
"I strongly deny it. Tribal people have their own customs. We don’t strike women," Maulvi Omar said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
A PPP spokesman said the government must show hard evidence.
"The government is nervous," he said. "They are trying to cover up their failure" to provide adequate security.
Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, told the BBC her will would be read out to a meeting of the PPP by her son on Sunday.
Asked if he wanted to lead the party, Zardari replied: "It depends on the party and it depends on the will."
Bhutto returned home from self-imposed exile in October, hoping to become prime minister for a third time. She escaped unhurt from a suicide attack then that killed about 140 people. The government said al Qaeda was also behind that attack.
Washington had encouraged Bhutto, relatively liberal by Pakistan standards and an outspoken opponent of Islamic militancy and violence. Her death wrecked U.S. hopes of a power-sharing agreement between her and Musharraf.
Musharraf seized power in a military coup in 1999 but left the army last month to become a civilian president.
U.S. President George W. Bush has urged Pakistanis to honour Bhutto’s memory by going ahead with the election, but a White House spokesman said on Saturday it was up to Pakistan’s authorities to determine the timing.
So far the government has not announced any decision to call off or postpone the vote, but the Election Commission says it is planning an emergency meeting on Monday.
The opposition party led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has said it would boycott the election if it goes ahead. A spokesman said on Saturday Sharif was trying to convince Bhutto’s PPP to do likewise.
Musharraf imposed a state of emergency in November in what was seen as an attempt to stop the judiciary from vetoing his re-election as president. He lifted emergency rule this month.
Bhutto, who became the Muslim world’s first democratically elected woman prime minister in 1988, was buried alongside her father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He was hanged in 1979 after being deposed by a military coup. (Additional reporting by Kamran Haider, Zeeshan Haider and Simon Gardner; Writing by Alex Richardson; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)