Benazir Bhutto warrant issued on ex-leader

AN ANTI-TERRORISM court in Pakistan has issued an arrest warrant for the country's exiled former president in connection with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

Bhutto, 54, the former prime minister, died in a gun and suicide attack in 2007, an assasination that sent shockwaves around the world.

Yesterday it emerged that a warrant had been issued for Pervez Musharraf, 67, Pakistan's former military ruler, in connection with her killing.

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Musharraf, now living in self-imposed exile in London, has been criticised by Bhutto's supporters, who claim he failed to do enough to ensure his political rival's protection. Musharraf has denied all the allegations.

Bhutto was killed as she left an election rally in the city of Rawalpindi on 27 December, 2007, just weeks after she returned to Pakistan after 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 19 February," said Musharraf's spokesman, Mohammad Ali Saif.

He added 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," he said.

Saif said that Musharraf would co-operate with the judiciary if asked to recount his version of events, but did not say if the former president would appear in court.

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. Musharraf, a former military chief who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1999, left Pakistan when he stepped down under the threat of impeachment in 2008. He spends most of his time in London and Dubai.

Musharraf has, however, expressed his intention to return to his homeland and said he aimed to establish offices for his new political party by next month.

The warrant for Musharraf's arrest follows a court order in December for the arrest of two senior police officers on allegations that they failed to provide adequate security for Bhutto before her assassination.A report by a United Nations commission of inquiry released in New York 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.

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It heavily criticised Pakistani authorities, saying they had "severely hampered" the investigation.

The initial investigation blamed a Pakistani Taleban leader and al-Qaeda ally, Baitullah Mehsud, for Bhutto's murder.

Musharraf, himself the target of at least two bomb attacks, has repeatedly dismissed suggestions that he, the security agencies or military were involved in killing his charismatic political rival.

After her death, Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party rode a wave of public sympathy to win the most seats in the February 2008 elections.

Months later, the party forced Musharraf to quit the presidency by threatening impeachment. He left for London later in the year, and has since spent a good deal of time on the lecture circuit, including in the United States.

The US backed Musharraf for much of his military rule because he was, at least officially, an ally in the American-led war on global terrorism, and provided Washington assistance in pursuing militants who used Pakistan's border region as a hideout to prepare attacks in neighbouring Afghanistan.

But domestic mistakes, including his attempts to fire the chief justice of the Supreme Court, hit his popularity, leading to mass protests that ultimately forced Musharraf to allow the new elections.

The new Pakistani president and head of the ruling People's Party is Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower. He also supports the US and has backed offensives against militants on Pakistani territory.

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Meanwhile, a suspected militant yesterday detonated explosives as army troops prepared to storm his hideout in north-west Pakistan, killing himself and wounding at least three soldiers, an army official said.

The blast occurred outside the town of Bhat Khela in Khyber Pakhtunkwa province after troops acting on a tip from residents surrounded a militant hide-out and told those inside to surrender, brigadier Saeed Ullah said. Soldiers killed a second militant in the shoot-out that followed the explosion.

Ullah said the security forces had detained five men from the area on suspicion of sheltering the militants, who, he claimed, were planning a suicide attack in the Swat Valley.

Bhat Khela is about 30 miles west of Mingora, the main town in Swat.