U.N. agrees to launch international probe of Bhutto assassination

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The United Nations has agreed to a request by the Pakistan government to launch an international investigation into the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto — raising the possibility of international scrutiny of the Pakistan army and its alleged links to Islamic extremists.

The decision is a victory for the Pakistan People's Party, which Bhutto had headed and which now leads the elected civilian government.

A senior State Department official said the Bush administration was not opposed to a U.N. inquiry. But the official added, "we have a fair amount of confidence" in the Pakistani government's earlier assertion that Bhutto's killing was the work of militant leader Baitullah Mehsud. The U.S. government has said it has its own independent information pointing to Mehsud. The U.S. official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

Some of Pakistan's independent-minded lawyers warned that the inquiry would provide a basis for intervention in Pakistan's internal affairs. The U.N. usually gets drawn in where there are disputes between countries or over accusations of crimes against humanity.

"This is setting a very dangerous precedent for all countries, especially Pakistan," said Taimur Malik, director of the Research Society of International Law, an independent think tank based in Lahore. "If we're asking for a U.N. probe, that would allow access to our military personnel. The risk is that something unfavorable is uncovered."

Bhutto died in December in a shooting and suicide bomb attack after a pre-election rally in Rawalpindi. President Pervez Musharraf blamed Islamic fanatics for her death, though many Pakistanis think the intelligence agencies and other arms of the state were involved. Her widower, Asif Zardari, held "the establishment" responsible shortly after Bhutto's assassination.

Scotland Yard, called in by Musharraf to help determine Bhutto's cause of death, backed Pakistani authorities in reporting that she died, not from the bullets fired at her, but from the subsequent explosion throwing her head against the sunroof of her vehicle. Zardari never accepted the findings, because the British police had to work without an autopsy, which was never performed, and with a crime scene that had not been preserved.

The People's Party started pressing for a U.N. investigation immediately after her murder. The previous government, run by Musharraf allies, accused Mehsud, leader of Pakistan's Taliban movement, of orchestrating the killing and issued a warrant for his arrest. But the People's Party government, in power since late March, has never pursued him and, in fact, is engaged in indirect negotiations for a peace deal with Mehsud.

Many Pakistanis think that the military's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, secretly supports Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and at home, as a bulwark against foreign influence. A recent study by independent research organization Rand Corp., found that "Taliban and other groups are getting help from individuals within Pakistan's government". Analysts said that those connections would have to be examined by the U.N.

Pakistan's Interior Ministry chief, Rehman Malik, said Friday that new evidence had recently been uncovered.

"We believe Madam Bhutto's assassination was an international conspiracy. We want to show the whole world the criminals involved, directly and indirectly, in this conspiracy so that no future prime minister will have to face murder like this," said Malik.

Details of the U.N. probe are yet to be announced following new that the "broad agreement" was reached during a meeting Thursday in New York between Pakistani Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Qureshi met in Washington on Friday with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and White House officials, who urged Pakistan to take steps to quell militants in its tribal belt.

U.S. officials describe the militants there as a growing threat to neighboring Afghanistan, but Qureshi, speaking at the private Brookings Institution, said the increased violence in Afghanistan "is not of Pakistan's creation," but largely due to faulty governance, weak institutions and narcotics trafficking in Afghanistan.

He said Pakistan is negotiating with militants who are willing to lay down their arms, "but when it is required, we have used force and we will use force."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article from Washington.)