RAWALPINDI, Pakistan - Pakistan opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated Thursday by an attacker who shot her after a campaign rally and then blew himself up. Her death stoked new chaos across the nuclear-armed nation, an important U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.
At least 20 others were also killed in the attack on the rally for Jan. 8 parliamentary elections where the 54-year-old Bhutto had just spoken.
Her supporters erupted in anger and grief after her killing, attacking police and burning tires and election campaign posters in several cities. At the hospital where she died, some smashed glass and wailed, chanting slogans against President Pervez Musharraf.
Musharraf blamed Islamic extremists for Bhutto's 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 U.S., a tense looking President Bush strongly condemned the attack "by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan's democracy."
Musharraf convened an emergency meeting with his senior staff, where they were expected to discuss whether to postpone the elections, an official at the Interior Ministry said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
The attacker struck just minutes after Bhutto addressed thousands of supporters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, 8 miles south of Islamabad. She was shot in the neck and chest by the attacker, who then blew himself up, said Rehman Malik, Bhutto's security adviser.
Sardar Qamar Hayyat, a leader from Bhutto's party, said he was standing about 10 yard away from her vehicle at the time of the attack.
"She was inside the vehicle and was coming out from the gate after addressing the rally when some of the youths started chanting slogans in her favor. Then I saw a smiling Bhutto emerging from the vehicle's roof and responding to their slogans," he said.
"Then I saw a thin, young man jumping toward her vehicle from the back and opening fire. Moments later, I saw her speeding vehicle going away," he added.
Bhutto was rushed to the hospital and taken into emergency surgery. She died about an hour after the attack.
"At 6:16 p.m., she expired," said Wasif Ali Khan, a member of Bhutto's party who was at Rawalpindi General Hospital.
"The surgeons confirmed that she has been martyred," Bhutto's lawyer Babar Awan said.
Bhutto's supporters at the hospital exploded in anger, smashing the glass door at the main entrance of the emergency unit. Others burst into tears. One man with a flag of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party tied around his head was beating his chest.
"I saw her with my own eyes sitting in a vehicle after addressing the rally. Then, I heard an explosion," Tahir Mahmood, 55, said sobbing. "I am in shock. I cannot believe that she is dead."
Many chanted slogans against Musharraf, accusing him of complicity in her killing.
"We repeatedly informed the government to provide her proper security and appropriate equipment ... but they paid no heed to our requests," Malik said.
As news of her death spread, angry supporters took to the streets.
In Karachi, shop owners quickly closed their businesses as protesters set tires on fire on the roads, torched several vehicles and burned a gas station, said Fayyaz Leghri, a local police official. Gunmen shot and wounded two police officers, he said.
In Rawalpindi, the site of the attack, Bhutto's supporters burned election posters from the ruling party and attacked police, who fled from the scene. Violence also broke out in Lahore, Multan, Peshawar and many other parts of Pakistan, where Bhutto's supporters set fire to a bus, pelted stones at shops and blocked city roads.
Musharraf, who announced three days of mourning for Bhutto, urged calm.
"I want to appeal to the nation to remain peaceful and exercise restraint," he said.
Nawaz Sharif, another former premier and opposition leader, arrived at the hospital and sat silently next to Bhutto's body.
"Benazir Bhutto was also my sister, and I will be with you to take the revenge for her death," he said. "Don't feel alone. I am with you. We will take the revenge on the rulers."
He rebutted suggestions that he could gain political capital from her demise.
Speaking to the BBC, Sharif also questioned whether to hold the elections.
"I think perhaps none of us is inclined to think of the elections," he said. "We would have to sit down and take a very serious look at the current situation together with the People's Party and see what we have to do in the coming days."
Hours earlier, four people were killed at a rally for Sharif when his supporters clashed with backers of Musharraf near Rawalpindi.
Bhutto's death will leave a void at the top of her party, the largest political group in the country, as it heads into the elections. It also fueled fears that the crucial vote could descend into violence.
Pakistan is considered a vital U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaida and other Islamic extremists including the Taliban. Osama bin Laden and his inner circle are believed to be hiding in lawless northwest Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan.
The U.S. has invested significant diplomatic capital in promoting reconciliation between Musharraf and the opposition, particularly Bhutto, who was seen as having a wide base of support in Pakistan. Her party had been widely expected to do well in next month's elections.
Bush, speaking briefly to reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, demanded that those responsible for the killing be brought to justice.
"The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan's democracy," said Bush, who looked tense and took no questions.
Pakistan was just emerging from another crisis after Musharraf declared a state of emergency on Nov. 3, and used sweeping powers to round up thousands of his opponents and fire Supreme Court justices. He ended emergency rule Dec. 15 and subsequently relinquished his role as army chief, a key opposition demand. Bhutto had been an outspoken critic of Musharraf's imposition of emergency rule.
Educated at Harvard and Oxford universities, Bhutto served twice as Pakistan's prime minister between 1988 and 1996.
Her father was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, scion of a wealthy landowning family in southern Pakistan and founder of the populist Pakistan People's Party. The elder Bhutto was president and then prime minister of Pakistan before his ouster in a 1977 military coup. Two years later, he was executed by the government of Gen. Zia-ul Haq after being convicted of engineering the murder of a political opponent.
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.
At the scene of Thursday's bombing, an Associated Press reporter saw body parts and flesh scattered at the back gate of the Liaqat Bagh park, where Bhutto had spoken. He counted about 20 bodies, including police, and could see many other wounded people.
Police cordoned off the street with white and red tape, and rescuers rushed to put victims in ambulances as people wailed nearby.
The clothing of some victims was shredded and people put party flags over their bodies. Police caps and shoes littered the asphalt.
Hundreds of riot police had manned security checkpoints around the venue. It was Bhutto's first public meeting in Rawalpindi since she came back to the country.
In November, Bhutto had also planned a rally in the city, but Musharraf forced her to cancel it, citing security fears.
In recent weeks, suicide bombers have repeatedly targeted security forces in Rawalpindi, where Musharraf stays and the Pakistan army has its headquarters.