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MUSHARRAF TRIES TO PIN BLAME FOR BHUTTO ASSASSINATION ON PRO-TALIBAN PASHTUNS

by Ashfaq Yusufzai

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on Bhutto assassination

(IPS) PESHAWAR -- Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's initial assertion that the pro-Taliban, Baitullah Mahsud, a Pashtun tribal leader, was behind the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto has not gone down well in the restless North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

The Awami National Party (ANP), the largest Pashtun (or Pakhtun) political grouping, has expressed annoyance at the allegation.

"The government's statement holding Waziristan's tribesmen responsible for the death of Benazir Bhutto is a plot to pitch different nationalities of the country against each other," ANP's provincial president Afrasiab Khattak told IPS.

"It is extremely unfortunate that the government has put responsibility at the door of the Pakhtun at this delicate moment in the country's history," he deplored.


Since the United States-led ‘war on terror' in Afghanistan, and the infiltration of the border areas by pro-Taliban groups, Pakistan's ethnic Pashtuns have been at the receiving end. Violence has ratcheted up in the NWFP and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) where the Pakistan military has tried to seal the porous border.

Pashtuns -- Afghanistan's most dominant ethnic group and the second-largest ethnic group in Pakistan -- played a lead role in fighting and expelling the Soviet army from Afghanistan during the 1980s. They also formed the backbone of the Taliban which ruled Afghanistan until ousted in late 2001 by U.S.-led coalition forces prosecuting the post 9/11 war on terror.

Pakistan, an ally in the war, faced an unprecedented number of suicide bombings last year. When Bhutto was killed in a gunfire attack-cum-suicide blast in Rawalpindi on Dec 27, the headquarters of the Pakistan military, suspicions naturally fell on the Pashtuns and the Taliban which is said to have close links with al-Qaeda.

However, Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has pointed fingers at the shadowy Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), the military intelligence. The government has denied the charge, and handed over investigation to Britain's Scotland Yard.

The ANP's Khattak has accused President Musharraf of deliberately pitching Pakistan's different ethnic groups against one another in a "divide and rule" policy resorted to by all unpopular leaders of the world.

He accused the government of trying to make scapegoats of the Pashtuns even though Bhutto had visited the NWFP three times since she returned to Pakistan after nearly nine years in exile in October 2007.

At an election rally in Peshawar, a day before she was murdered, she said: "Pakhtuns are brave. They never break a promise. We have time-tested friends here."

"She (Bhutto) visited the marketplace and mingled with people and spoke with a fruit-seller in Nowshera bazaar despite the life threats," Abdul Wajeeh, a student said her last visit was proof that the assassinated leader did not feel threatened by ordinary Pashtuns.

The Musharraf government had attempted to pin the blame of the previous assassination attempt, the day Bhutto had returned triumphantly to Karachi from exile in Dubai and London, on Mahsud, leader of a pro-Taliban group active in FATA and NWFP.

But Bhutto, the very next day at a press conference, had pointed to the involvement of Pakistan's intelligence agencies in the attacks by mentioning three anonymous men whom she said she had named in a letter to Musharraf on Oct. 16. "I said that if something happens to me, I will hold them responsible rather than militant groups like the Taliban, al-Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban."

The PPP also demanded the removal of Intelligence Bureau chief, Ijaz Shah, hinting at its links with militancy. Bhutto's later claim that the Oct. 18 blasts were remote-controlled further implied the involvement of forces other than the "religious militants" who are traditionally held responsible for such acts.

"Pakhtuns are the most peace-loving and non-violent and hospitable nation. They like resolution of their intra-family disputes through dialogue. They avoid a collision course," ANP central president Senator Asfandyar Wali Khan told IPS in an interview.

But the damage had been done by Musharraf's statement. Hundreds of trucks and trailers belonging to the Waziristan Transport Service were set ablaze in the aftermath of the assassination. Also, five petrol pumps were damaged.

"Angry protesters in Sindh (Bhutto's home province) and Punjab provinces attacked vehicles and petrol pumps owned by Pakhtuns from South Waziristan," Mir Nawaz Khan, president of Waziristan Transport Service, told IPS.

"In Sindh alone, 62 trailers, trucks, oil-tankers and one petrol pump were torched. The Mehran Waziristan Petrol Pump was burnt in Ranipur Sindh, whereas in Sukkur, Ranipur, Karachi, Hyderabad, Thatta, Shikarpur and Badin, 62 vehicles loaded with cement, sugar, fertilisers and other things owned by Pakhtuns were reduced to ashes," said Mohammad Rafiq of Bangash Waziristan Goods Transport from Hyderabad, Sindh.

Amin Wazir, president of the Waziristan Transport Owners' Association at a news conference demanded compensation for 500 trailers and trucks burnt by rioters. "The government is pitching Pakhtun, Punjabi and Sindhi against each other. The Pakhtun has suffered a great deal in view of the so-called ‘war against terrorism,'" he said.

However, the ploy may not be working. Results of a new survey funded by a U.S peace research institute revealed that a strong majority of Pakistanis consider the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan a much more critical threat to their country than al-Qaeda or the Taliban in the border regions.



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Albion Monitor   January 10, 2008   (http://www.albionmonitor.com)

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