Sunday, Sep 24, 2023

The Drive To Death

The Drive To Death

From Peshawar to Pindi: With the data available so far from sources in Pakistan, the following reconstruction of the assassination of Mrs.Benazir Bhutto has been possible:

On the afternoon of December 26,2007, Mrs.Benazir Bhutto addressed a public meeting at the Arbab Niaz Stadium in Peshawar. At 10-30 AM, a crude improvised explosive device (IED) fitted with a timer exploded in the Jinnah Islamia College, adjacent to the Stadium. The IED had been placed in the sewage near one of the entrances to the Stadium. There were no casualties. The Police stepped up the anti-explosive checks in the Stadium. They detained one Rahim Islam, a 15-year-old villager from Matani, as he was about to enter the Stadium before her arrival. They found in his possession 450 grams of an explosive material, but he did not have a detonator or batteries. The public meeting went off smoothly. At the end of the day, before proceeding to Rawalpindi, Benazir expressed her unhappiness over the inadequate security arrangements for her.

Her public election meeting at the Liaquat Bagh in Rawalpindi was fixed for 11-30 AM on December 27,2007. By that time, apart from the office-bearers of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP), there was hardly any audience at the venue. The PPP office-bearers advised her to delay her arrival. By 3 PM, the venue was only one-third full. Ever since she returned to Pakistan from her political exile on October 18,2007, the public response at her election meetings was poor. This was partly due to fears of a terrorist strike after what happened at Karachi on October 18,2007, when about 150 civilians and security staff died during an unsuccessful attempt to kill her through a suicide bomber and partly due to disenchantment over her reported deal with President Pervez Musharraf and the US. Even though the venue was two-thirds empty even by 3 PM, the office-bearers decided to start the meeting, since it had to be concluded before sunset. There were the usual security checks, including anti-explosive checks carried out by the Rawalpindi Police as well as the private security staff of the PPP hired by Mr.Rahman Malik, a retired senior police officer,who was co-ordinating her security. Malik was personally present at the public meeting venue to co-ordinate with the Rawalpindi Police and to supervise the security staff of the PPP.

Benazir reached the venue after the other office-bearers of the PPP had addressed the audience. She finished her speech by 5-15 PM. Before Benazir returned from exile on October 18,2007, her party had imported two armour-plated Land Cruisers, with a sunroof, for her use. She used to travel in one with some close associates. The other used to follow her with an escort party of the PPP. The idea was that if one vehicle broke down, she could get into the second vehicle. Moreover, whenever she made any unscheduled stop, the members of the escort party would get out and keep an eye on the people gathered for any suspicious movement. It is alleged that after the public meeting was over, as Benazir was taking leave of her party officials, Malik got into the second armour-plated vehicle and went to Zardari House in Islamabad, where she was staying, without following Benazir. When he left, the other members of the PPP security staff and the Rawalpindi Police also allegedly left. Benazir was left alone with two bodyguards hired by her party.

She got into her Land Cruiser along with Maqdoom Amin Fahim, the Vice-Chairman of her party,Mrs.Naheed Khan, her trusted political adviser, and her husband, Dr Safdar Abbasi, Major Imtiaz, a retired army officer, who used to drive her Land Cruiser, and the two PPP bodyguards. As the vehicle came out of the venue on to the College Road, there was a group of people standing there shouting slogans praising her. Since they had not attended the public meeting, they had not been subjected to security checks. Benazir asked Imtiaz to stop the vehicle and came out of the sunroof to greet them. The body-guards got out of the car. They did not apparently notice a man in the group taking out a revolver and firing at her. She collapsed inside the car. There was an explosion. The body-guards were killed before they could get into the car. The armour-plates of the Land Cruiser withstood the impact of the explosion. None inside suffered any injury. However, the tyres of the vehicle could not withstand the impact. All of them blew up. Despite this, Imtiaz tried to drive away. After a few hundred feet, he was unable to manoeuvre the vehicle. It got immobilised on the road with Benazir almost lifeless and bleeding profusely inside.

Among the vehicles which escaped the explosion was a Prado Jeep of the PPP, which was being used by Mrs. Sherry Rehman, the Information Secretary of the PPP. The occupants of the Land Cruiser transferred her into the Prado and drove her to the hospital. In the meanwhile, it is alleged, Malik and other PPP security staff reached the Zardari House in Islamabad. They waited for some time. When there was a delay in her return, they made enquiries and found that an injured Benazir had been taken to a Rawalpindi hospital. They rushed there only to find that she was dead.

It would thus seem that her assassination was as much due to the negligence of her PPP security staff as that of the Rawalpindi Police. Presently, a tribunal at Karachi has been enquiring into the security arrangements for Benazir at Karachi on October18, 2007, when a suicide bomber unsuccessfully tried to kill her. Given below is the text of a report carried by the Dawn of Karachi on January 4,2008, on the proceedings before the Tribunal:

KARACHI, Jan 3: Depositions before the inquiry tribunal investigating the Oct 18, 2007, Karsaz blasts established on Thursday (January 3) that the police not only failed to check the identities of some 300 to 400 volunteers of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) who were guarding former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s float, but the law-enforcement personnel entrusted with the duty of implementing the approved security plan did not verify the volunteers’ authority or whether any of them was armed.

This information came to light when the inquiry tribunal cross-examined a witness, SP Javed Ahmed Baloch, who had been the nominated float commander of Ms Bhutto’s homecoming procession.

Under the pre-approved security plan, amongst the many responsibilities of the police was to ensure that no unauthorised or suspicious person or vehicle was able to approach the PPP motorcade, as well as to ensure that no PPP leader was accompanied on the motorcade byan armed gunman.

Responding to a question raised by the head of the tribunal, Justice (retd) Dr Ghaus Mohammed, at the start of Wednesday’s proceedings, SP Baloch confirmed that he had full knowledge of the security plan and arrangements, and that a copy of these details had been given to him.

He testified that he had coordinated with PPP leader Agha Siraj Durrani, who had informed the superintendent at the airport that no police personnel would be deputed on the float and that PPP worker Akram Baloch would be in charge of the float’s security. Telling the tribunal that Mr Durrani placed between 300 and 400 PPP volunteers to guard the float when it arrived at Terminal 1, SP Baloch testified that he had personally informed SSP Security Dr Amin Yousafzai about this.

"Since it was your duty to ensure that no unauthorised person came close to the float, what measures did the police take?" questioned thetribunal. "How do you know that all the volunteers were authorised?"

SP Baloch responded that all the PPP volunteers had known each other and had not allowed anyone to check the main vehicle, including their own party leaders.

According to the superintendent’s deposition, the volunteers also barred the bomb disposal squad initially, and allowed the squad to sweep the vehicle only after he [SP Baloch] approached PPP worker and security overseer Akram Baloch in this regard.

The superintendent further said that since all the volunteers had worn the same uniform adorned with party flags, he had presumed that they were authorised PPP volunteers.

"How could you presume that all of them were authorised PPP volunteers? Did the police check them to ensure that they were not carrying any weapons, since it was not allowed [under the security plan]?" questioned the tribunal.

The witness conceded that none of the apparent volunteers had been checked by the police. He hastily added that the volunteers had come to the airport in a bus and PPP leader Mr Durrani had informed the police that they had been checked and were unarmed.

SP Baloch testified that the crowd had been at a distance of about 50 feet from the float and the rush prevented the maintenance of a larger distance.

In response to another question, he said that the police took measures and did not allow any unauthorised person to approach the float carrying Ms Bhutto from the airport to the Karsaz bridge.

"But don’t you feel it was a security lapse that 300 to 400 people were there but they were not checked?" asked the court. This prompted additional advocate-general Arshad Lodhi to intervene and try to explain, but the tribunal made it clear that it wanted to know whether a security lapse had taken place.

Referring to a requirement of the security plan that the "armed gunmen of political leaders would not be allowed to travel with the motorcade," SP Baloch conceded that this had not, in fact, been checked. SP Baloch further testified that he did not see the head of the suspected suicide bomber at the scene of the blasts. "Due to panic and confusion, people were running away here and there and therefore, I could not further concentrate except that I went

towards the injured persons," he said.

(End of Dawn report )

In this connection, attention is also invited to my observations in my article of October 21, 2007, titled, Whodunit

B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.


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