Pakistan suspends officials after scathing U.N. Bhutto report

McClatchy NewspapersApril 19, 2010 

LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistan suspended a raft of officials following a damning United Nations report into the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the government said Monday.

Separately, extremists unleashed a renewed wave of violence in northwest Pakistan that continued Monday with the bombing of a school and a marketplace in Peshawar that claimed at least 24 lives in a city on a major U.S. and NATO supply line to Afghanistan.

One of the officials removed was Saud Aziz, a senior police officer who ordered the scene of Bhutto's December 2007 murder to be hosed down immediately, destroying valuable evidence. Another was Javed Cheema, an interior ministry official who claimed that Bhutto had been killed in a plot hatched by the then-leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud.

"They (the suspended officials) will all be questioned by investigators," said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Pakistani President Asif Zardari, Bhutto's widower.

However, no action was taken against any officers of the country's politically powerful army or military intelligence agencies, although the U.N. report implicated the military in the events leading to Bhutto's death.

U.S. officials fear that a widening rift between Pakistan's political leaders and its military could hamper joint efforts to subdue al Qaida and the Afghan Taliban, which have sanctuaries along Pakistan's rugged border with Afghanistan.

The Pakistan Peoples Party that Bhutto led, which is now in power, also suggested that it would investigate the role of former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, the army general who was president of Pakistan when Bhutto was killed and who now lives in exile in London.

"If Musharraf or any of his associates is found responsible in criminal investigations, then definitely action will be taken against them," information minister Qamar Zaman Kaira told reporters in Islamabad.

Musharraf's spokesman, Rashid Qureshi, last week told McClatchy that there was "no logic" behind the allegations made by the U.N. commission against the former president or his government.

Eight government officials were suspended, and a ninth, Cheema, the former interior ministry spokesman who was the director general of Pakistan's civil defense agency, had his employment contract terminated. Cheema's declaration that the assassination was ordered by Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud had "pre-empted, prejudiced and hindered the subsequent investigation" the U.N. concluded.

The U.N. commission found that police officer Aziz, now serving in a different city, not only had destroyed evidence at the scene of the crime, but also was guilty of the "deliberate prevention" of a post mortem, adding that the officer "did not act independently of higher authorities".

The U.N. report suggests that Aziz was acting at the direction of Maj. Gen. Nadeem Ijaz Ahmad, who was then the head of the military intelligence agency and considered close to Musharraf, and who still has a senior job in the Pakistani army. Few, however, expect Ahmad or other senior military officials to be accountable.

Bhutto died after a gunman and a suicide bomber attacked her vehicle as she left a political rally in the city of Rawalpindi, close to Islamabad.

"The failure of the police to investigate effectively Ms. Bhutto's assassination was deliberate," the U.N. report, published last week, found.

The suicide bomber Monday in Peshawar hit a political protest against electricity shortages, killing at least 23 people, as it was passing through the city's most famous market.

Earlier in the day, an 8-year-old boy died from a blast outside a school. Dozens of others were killed in other bombings in recent days, including an attack on a relief camp for those who'd fled from the Pakistan army's military operations against Taliban in the border tribal area with Afghanistan.

"After almost four months, they (the extremists) have started again," said Peshawar city police chief Liaqat Ali. "They've reorganized and regrouped. Nonetheless, we're ready for them."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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