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UN says Bhutto murder could have been prevented

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) – Pakistani authorities could have prevented the 2007 murder of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and deliberately failed to properly investigate her death, a UN-appointed independent panel said.

“Ms. Bhutto's assassination could have been prevented if adequate security measures had been taken,” said a report out Thursday by a three-member panel headed by Chile's UN ambassador Heraldo Munoz.

The panel, tasked with establishing the circumstances of the killing, said it believed the Pakistani police's failure to effectively probe the slaying “was deliberate.”

The report also said the investigation was severely hampered by intelligence agencies and other officials who impeded “an unfettered search for the truth.”

The charismatic, Oxford-educated Bhutto, the first woman to become prime minister of a Muslim country, was killed on December 27, 2007 in a gun and suicide attack after addressing an election rally in Rawalpindi, a garrison city near the capital Islamabad.

Her death threw the country into chaos, sparking violence and months of political turmoil that ended in September 2008 when her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, claimed the presidency.

The Munoz-led panel said in its 65-page report that the federal government, the government of Punjab and the Rawalpindi district police were responsible for Bhutto's security the day of her assassination.

“None of these entities took the necessary measures to respond to the extraordinary, fresh, urgent security risks that they knew she faced,” it added.

It noted that the Pakistani government failed to provide Bhutto with the same stringent and specific security measures it ordered on October 22, 2007 for two other former prime ministers belonging to the main political party supporting then-president Pervez Musharraf.

“This discriminatory treatment is profoundly troubling given the devastating attempt on her life only three days earlier and the specific threats against her which were being tracked” by Pakistani intelligence.

The report said the subsequent Pakistani probe “lacked direction, was ineffective and suffered from a lack of commitment to identify and bring all of the perpetrators to justice.”

It added that it was up to Pakistani authorities to carry out a “serious, credible criminal investigation that determines who conceived, ordered and executed this heinous crime... and brings those responsible to justice.”

Munoz told reporters that the UN probe, which began last July, was not a criminal investigation.

He said his panel conducted more than 250 interviews, meeting Pakistani officials and private citizens, foreign citizens with knowledge of the events, and members of Britain's Scotland Yard who probed some aspects of the killing.

Bhutto's supporters cast doubt on an initial Pakistani probe into her death, questioning whether she was killed by a gunshot or the blast and criticizing authorities for hosing down the scene of the attack within minutes.

According to Scotland Yard's inquiry, Bhutto died from the force of a suicide bomb and not gunfire.

The UN report, which was requested by Zardari's political party, was turned over to UN chief Ban Ki-moon earlier Thursday.

The panel -- which also included Indonesian former attorney general Marzuki Darusman and Peter Fitzgerald, an Irish ex-police official -- urged Pakistani authorities to make sure that further investigation into the Bhutto assassination “ is fully empowered and resourced and is conducted expeditiously and comprehensively, at all levels, without hindrance.”

The UN report was unveiled following a two-week delay requested by Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik, who wanted input from former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Saudi Arabia included.

In Islamabad, a spokesman for president Zardari said Friday that the government will give its reaction after studying the report.

“We are reading the report and a detailed reaction would be given after it,” Farhatullah Babar told AFP.

State television quoted Babar as saying the government “ is not oblivious to its duties and it is investigating the murder of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto.”

Retired Lieutenant General Hamid Nawaz, interior minister when Bhutto was assassinated, refused to comment.

“I cannot comment on the UN report because the matter is sub-judice,” Nawaz told AFP.

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