KARACHI, Pakistan – A top government official insisted Saturday Pakistan did everything it could to protect Benazir Bhutto on her homecoming, and dismissed accusations that officials may have been complicit in the attack that she escaped but left at least 136 other people dead.
Bhutto blamed Al Qaeda and Taliban militants for the assassination attempt against her, and vowed she was ready to risk her life to restore democracy to her troubled homeland.
But she also hinted Friday that government or military officials could have been involved in the attack — a charge the government rejected.
"I think we should stop playing blame games. The government provided the best possible security to her," Deputy Information Minister Sen. Tariq Azim told The Associated Press. "The trauma of the attack has made them say things which probably in coolness of things they will not repeat."
"Peoples names have been mentioned and names have been hinted at without giving any reason or without giving any proof of their involvement, and that is unfair," he said.
The list of people who could have targeted the pro-Western Harvard and Oxford graduate is long. Bhutto blamed remnants of the regime of former military leader Gen. Zia ul-Haq allegedly complicit in her father's execution. Islamic extremists could also be bent on stopping a female political leader from modernizing Pakistan.
Authorities say the homicide bombing bore the hallmarks of a warlord and the Al Qaeda terror network — an attack that began with a man throwing a grenade into a sea of people following Bhutto's convoy, and then blowing himself up with a device packed with nuts and bolts.
"We believe democracy alone can save Pakistan from disintegration and a militant takeover," Bhutto told reporters in her Karachi home a day after her return from eight years in exile.
It remains unclear what effect the attack will have on the talks between Bhutto and President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who have been in negotiations over creating a power-sharing agreement.
While Bhutto has accused some political allies of Musharraf of militant links, the attack could push the two closer into an alliance to fight extremism — a cause that both reiterated their support for in the aftermath of the bombing.
It was one of the deadliest in Pakistan's history, turning Bhutto's jubilant homecoming parade into a scene of blood and carnage.
Karachi, a normally boisterous city of 15 million, remained subdued Saturday. Shopping malls and gas stations were still closed in several districts.
"I am not able to get fuel for my car," said Azam Ali, a 40-year-old bank clerk.
In an editorial titled "Monster of Extremism," the independent national newspaper The News said the bombings "could further polarize an already charged political atmosphere in the country and bring yet more uncertainty to the country's fledgling democratic system."
Bhutto's procession, thronged by supporters, had been creeping toward the center of Karachi for 10 hours Thursday when a small explosion erupted near the front of the vehicle. That was quickly followed by a larger blast, destroying two escorting police vans.
The 54-year-old leader had descended into the bulletproof bus' interior to rest when the attack occurred.
"Something in my heart told me that this is not a firecracker, it is a suicide attack," she said. "You could see the light, and then as we waited for 30 seconds to 60 seconds, we heard the sound and saw the huge orange light and bodies spilling all over."
Bhutto said she also heard shots fired — possibly indicating multiple attackers. She said streetlights were not working and cell phone access was down at the time of the attack.
She praised her security guards and said there were two bombers. Police said there was one.
In the aftermath, bodies lay motionless in the street among pools of blood, broken glass, tossed motorcycles and bits of clothing.
The attack came as no surprise to Bhutto. Ahead of her arrival, she said, she was warned suicide squads had been dispatched to kill her.
"There was one suicide squad from the Taliban elements, one suicide squad from Al Qaeda, one suicide squad from Pakistani Taliban and a fourth — a group — I believe from Karachi," she said.
She said telephone numbers of suicide squads had been given to her by a "brotherly" country and she alerted President Gen. Pervez Musharraf in a letter dated Oct. 16.
She also said she had told Musharraf that three officials — whom she would not name — were planning suicide attacks on her.
She blamed remnants of the government of the former dictator, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. He seized power in 1977, then arrested and hanged Bhutto's father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, for allegedly conspiring to murder a political opponent.
She said many of the same men are fanning elements determined to destabilize Pakistan.
"It was an attack by a militant minority that does not enjoy the support of the people of Pakistan, that has only triumphed in a military dictatorship."
She said the military thugs of the 1970s who terrorized her family and today's extremists and militants share the same thirst to "to kill and maim innocent people and deny them the right to a representative government."
Pakistan's Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani said elections would go ahead as planned — slated for January.
"Elections will be held on time," he said Friday as families mourned the dead.
Bhutto was meeting Saturday with leaders of her party. Spokesman Farhatullah Babar said how the party would campaign in the aftermath of the bombing was "top of the agenda."
Officials at six hospitals in Karachi reported 136 dead and about 250 wounded.
Musharraf, the nation's leader, phoned Bhutto on Friday to express his condolences.
Bhutto had paved her route back to Pakistan through negotiations with Musharraf, a longtime political rival despite their shared liberal values. Their talks yielded an immunity covering the corruption charges that made Bhutto leave Pakistan.
There was no claim of responsibility for the attack.