The assassination late Thursday of Benazir Bhutto, the charismatic opposition leader and two-time former prime minister of Pakistan who had promised to restore democracy in a country long dominated by military rulers, has unleashed a wave of grief and fury, raising fears that the nuclear-armed nation could be pushed to the brink of civil war.
For the second time in less than two months, the world is forced to hold its collective breath as events threaten to spiral out of control, raising anew fears among Western security experts of Pakistan's nuclear weapons falling into the hands of al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists.
After Bhutto's body was entombed Friday next to her father, the late former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at the family mausoleum in her hometown of Larkana, angry mobs accusing President Pervez Musharraf of complicity in Bhutto's murder have been on a rampage for the past three days, ransacking banks and burning train stations.
Rioting and street clashes have killed at least 40 people as of late Sunday afternoon, according to a senior security official. Security forces in Bhutto's home province of Sindh in southern Pakistan were ordered on Friday to shoot violent protesters on sight.
Residents of Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, cautiously emerged from their homes Sunday and struggled to find food and fuel amid the blackened buildings, shattered glass and burnt-out vehicles littering the streets. With police and troops patrolling, Karachi appeared quiet for the first time since Bhutto's assassination.
In the southern city of Hyderabad, Pakistani police opened fire on protesters Friday, wounding five people. Meanwhile, an explosion -- believed to be caused by a suicide bomber -- ripped through an election meeting in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, killing three people, including a candidate for the party that supports Musharraf.
Government, Opposition At Odds Over Who's Responsible for Bhutto's Murder
The question of exactly who is responsible for the ex-premier's murder during a political rally in Rawalpindi has become an increasingly volatile flashpoint of dispute between the Musharraf government and Bhutto's supporters.
The government says the killing was the work of militants linked to al-Qaida and its Taliban allies, pointing the finger of blame squarely at Baitullah Mehsud, leader of Tehrik-i-Taliban, a previously unknown coalition of Islamic militants.
Tehrik-i-Taliban guerrillas are believed by Islamabad to be concentrated along the northwestern Pakistan-Afghan border region long believed by the United States to be the hiding place of fugitive al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. The group is committed to waging a jihad, or holy war, to overthrow Musharraf, the government says.
But Maulana Mohammed Umer, a spokesman for Mehsud, dismissed the government's allegations as "propaganda." Umer insisted to the Islamabad bureau of The Associated Press by telephone from the tribal region of South Waziristan that "We [Tehrik-i-Taliban] are only against America, and we don't consider political leaders of Pakistan [to be] our enemy."
Bhutto's supporters also cast doubts about the government's claim of an al-Qaida link and accused Islamabad of engaging in a cover-up of its own complicity in her assassination. "The story that al-Qaida or Baitullah Mehsud did it appears to us to be a planted story, an incorrect story, because they want to divert the attention," said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Bhutto's party.
Exact Cause of Bhutto's Death Is Also a Bone of Contention
The government's report Friday that Bhutto's death was caused by smashing her head into her SUV's sunroof immediately after the bomb blast was also disputed by a Bhutto spokeswoman. Sherry Rehman, who accompanied Bhutto as she was rushed to the hospital, insisted that the former prime minister was shot in the back of her head before the bomb went off.
"She was bleeding profusely, as she had received a bullet wound in her neck," Rehman told the Melbourne, Australia newspaper The Age. "My car was full of blood. Three doctors at the hospital told us that she had received bullet wounds. I was among the people who gave her a final bath. We saw a bullet wound in the back of her neck."