Pakistani opposition leader and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in a suicide bomb attack Thursday, stoking new chaos across the nuclear-armed nation, an important U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.
The attack took place during a political rally in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, ahead of the Jan. 9 general election. Around 20 people are believed to have died in the attack.
An official with Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, Rehman Malik, confirmed her death, saying, “She has been martyred.”
According to police, a suicide bomber fired shots at Bhutto, 54, as she was leaving the rally venue in a park.
"The man first fired at Bhutto's vehicle. She ducked and then he blew himself up," said police officer Mohammad Shahid.
According to Ary-One Television, Bhutto had been shot in the head prior to the explosion.
"It is the act of those who want to disintegrate Pakistan because she was a symbol of unity. They have finished the Bhutto family. They are enemies of Pakistan," senior Bhutto party official Farzana Raja told Reuters.
President Pervez Musharraf blamed Islamic extremists for her death and said he would redouble his efforts to fight them.
"This is the work of those terrorists with whom we are engaged in war," he said in a nationally televised speech. "I have been saying that the nation faces the greatest threats from these terrorists. ... We will not rest until we eliminate these terrorists and root them out."
In the United States, President Bush strongly condemned the attack "by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan's democracy." White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said Bush spoke briefly by phone with Musharraf.
India, meanwhile, called Bhutto’s death a terrible blow to democracy in Pakistan.
"It is equally sad that this happened when the people of Pakistan were looking up to her," junior Indian foreign minister Anand Sharma told the NDTV news channel.
"It is a terrible blow to the democratic process, and no words are adequate to condemn this abominable act," he said. "We offer our condolences to her bereaved family members but also to her friends and supporters at this hour of their grief."
Bhutto had returned to Pakistan from an eight-year exile on Oct. 18. On the same day, she narrowly escaped injury when her homecoming parade in Karachi was targeted in a suicide attack that killed more than 140 people.
Islamic militants linked to al-Qaida and the Taliban hated Bhutto for her close ties to the Americans and support for the war on terrorism. A local Taliban leader reportedly threatened to greet Bhutto's return to the country with suicide bombings.
Hundreds of riot police had manned security checkpoints around the rally venue Thursday, Bhutto's first public meeting in Rawalpindi since she came back to the country.
In recent weeks, suicide bombers have repeatedly targeted security forces in Rawalpindi.
In November, Bhutto had also planned a rally in the city, but Musharraf forced her to cancel it, citing security fears.