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Pakistan probe of Bhutto death faces hurdles

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan may find it difficult to thoroughly investigate former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination as called for by a U.N. report, analysts say, without antagonizing the powerful security establishment.

A report by a United Nations commission of inquiry released in New York on Thursday said her killing by a 15-year-old suicide bomber could have been prevented if adequate security measures had been taken.

Bhutto was killed in a gun and suicide bomb attack after an election rally in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007, weeks after she returned to Pakistan from years in self-imposed exile.

The U.N. report heavily criticized Pakistani authorities, saying they had “severely hampered” the investigation.

The three U.N. investigators who conducted a nine-month inquiry, headed by Chile’s U.N. Ambassador Heraldo Munoz, believe the failure to effectively examine Bhutto’s death was “deliberate,” the report said.

The probe was designed to look into the circumstances surrounding Bhutto’s death.

Pakistan is still left with the responsibility of determining who carried out the assassination, one of the most dramatic events in the country’s turbulent history, a task analysts say could antagonize some of the country’s power centres.

The report called on the Pakistani authorities to carry out a “serious, credible criminal investigation that determines who conceived, ordered and executed this heinous crime of historic proportions” and brings those responsible to justice.

Pakistani authorities arrested five Islamist militants in 2008 on suspicions of involvement in Bhutto’s assassination. They were being tried in an anti-terrorism court in Rawalpindi but the current government, which came into power after February 2008 elections, requested the court stop the trial as it wanted to re-investigate the matter.

A man holds a portrait of the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto while displaying her images at a makeshift memorial in Liaquat Bagh in Rawalpindi March 31, 2010. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

Police officials said the Federal Investigation Agency, the government’s main arm for criminal investigation, was now doing the probe.

“We are not oblivious of our responsibilities to carry out investigations,” presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar told Reuters.

Bhutto was mistrusted by parts of Pakistan’s military and security establishment. Speculation has lingered she was the victim of a plot by allies of General Pervez Musharraf, the president at the time, who did not want her to come to power.

The report did not say who it believed was guilty of the crime, but suggested any credible investigation should also look at those who conceived, planned and financed the operation -- and should not exclude the possible involvement of Pakistan’s powerful military and security establishment.

“The blame has been fixed on the previous administration, especially for those who were responsible for her security,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political and security analyst

“Now the challenge for the government is to carry out its own investigations. There will be pressure on the government and even within the Pakistan People’s Party to proceed against those (security) officers who are still in service.”

Farahnaz Ispahani, media adviser to the co-chairman of the PPP, said: “We expect there will be a proper criminal investigation followed by prosecutions.”

But it could be difficult for the current government to explore too deeply, especially the possibility that the army or security establishments played a role, as the report suggests they may have.

Pakistan’s all-powerful army has been described as a state within a state. Musharraf had said he and his military and security forces played no part in Bhutto’s killing.

“There is no will to really delve into all kinds of linkages which implicate people who are still in the know, who are still in the country,” said Simbal Khan, acting director of the Eurasian Studies Institute of Strategic Studies.

“I think it will be very difficult for them to convince everybody that this is going to be a real thorough investigation. It will be something that will be put on the backburner again.” While the report said most of the responsibility for failing to protect Bhutto lies with the government of the day, it was also critical of Bhutto’s own Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) party, for providing inadequate supplemental security for her.

President Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower, was “deeply” involved with planning Bhutto’s security for her return to Pakistan, and current Interior Minister Rehman Malik, played a major role too, according to the report.

A more intense investigation of the assassination may prove embarrassing to a government already pressed to tackle a range of issues, from a Taliban insurgency to crippling power cuts.

Bhutto had returned to Pakistan, a key ally to the United States in its war against al Qaeda and the Taliban, to contest an election under a power-sharing deal with Musharraf that Washington had helped to broker.

A staunch opponent of Islamist militants, Bhutto survived a bomb attack on a rally hours after arriving home in the city of Karachi in October 2007. Some 149 people were killed.

The toughly worded U.N. report said Musharraf was aware of and tracking the many threats against Bhutto.

But his government “did little more than pass on those threats to her and to provincial authorities and (was) not proactive in neutralizing them or ensuring that the security provided was commensurate to the threats,” it said.

Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony and Chris Allbritton; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Jerry Norton