ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf rejected any suggestion security agencies were behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and said on Thursday she had been warned about threats from Islamist militants.
Musharraf told reporters authorities were not responsible for a security lapse that led to the killing of the opposition leader and former prime minister in a gun and suicide-bomb attack in Rawalpindi on December 27.
“In the last three months, there have been 19 suicide bombings, most of them against the military, against the intelligence,” he said.
“If the same military and same intelligence is using the same people who are attacking them, it’s a joke.”
Musharraf said an al Qaeda-linked militant based on the Afghan border, Baitullah Mehsud, was behind most of the recent suicide bombings as well as the attack on Bhutto. Bhutto had spoken out about the need to tackle militancy.
Many Pakistanis believe other Bhutto enemies, perhaps in sections of the security agencies, were involved.
“No intelligence organization in Pakistan, I think, is capable of indoctrinating a man to blow himself up,” Musharraf said.
The killing of Bhutto, an old Musharraf rival, and violence that followed has fuelled doubts about stability and the transition to democratic rule in nuclear-armed Pakistan, a crucial U.S. ally in its anti-terrorism efforts.
Opposition leaders have called for Musharraf to quit and some critics say he has become a source of instability.
Musharraf said Bhutto had ignored warnings about the danger of holding a rally at the Rawalpindi park.
“Yes, indeed, she was informed of the threat.
“We knew, the intelligence agencies knew, there was a threat and we told her not to go and stopped her from going,” he said referring to an incident in November when authorities put Bhutto under house arrest briefly to stop her attending a rally at the park.
“This time again, she decided to go and she went ... She went on her own volition, ignoring the threat,” he said.
Musharraf said security was very tight in the park, with more than 1,000 policemen on duty and police marksmen posted on roofs, as well as mobile squads around Bhutto.
Bhutto was killed when she stepped up through the sunroof of her armored land cruiser to wave to supporters outside the venue as she left. None of her companions sitting inside the vehicle was hurt.
“The (security) lapse was not on the government side,” he said. “Who is to blame for her coming out of the vehicle?”
Musharraf said a free, fair and peaceful election would be held with the help of the army and paramilitary forces but said other political leaders also faced threats. The general election has been postponed six weeks to February 18.
“We know there are people under threat. We know there are people who want to disrupt the democratic process ... Everyone who is under threat has been told. What more can you do?”
“I think that the election is the answer. Let an elected government come into place and let them handle this crisis. We have to have political reconciliation to fight this menace together.”
Musharraf said he was not fully satisfied with the investigation into Bhutto’s murder and he hoped British police, who are going to assist with the inquiry, would bring technical expertise.
He said new photographs and video of the killing were turning up but he gave no details.
Editing by Robert Woodward