Baitullah made a scapegoat in Bhutto murder case?


LAHORE: Despite being tagged by the Pervez Musharraf regime as the mastermind of formemr Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s 2007 assassination, the involvement of the Tehrik-e-Taliban chief Commander Baitullah Mehsud in the murder remains dubious keeping in view the TTP chief’s own denials as well as Benazir’s declaration shortly before her death that people like Baitullah were mere pawns and what worried her was the threat from within the Musharraf administration.

While Benazir had named in her posthumous book the Harkatul Jehadul Islami (HUJI) chief Qari Saifullah Akhtar as a key suspect in the October 18, 2007 bid to kill her in Karachi, and she had desired in her October 20, 2007 email to Wolf Blitzer of the CNN that President General Pervez Musharraf should be named as her assassin in the event of her murder. Instead, the Musharraf regime was quick to name Baitullah Mehsud, the ameer of the Tehrik-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP) as the mastermind of the December 27, 2007 suicide attack in Rawalpindi that killed Ms Bhutto.

Addressing his first press conference after the Bhutto murder, Asif Zardari had made public her email to Wolf Blitzer which mentioned the name of her would-be assassin. ‘The said e-mail should be treated as Bhutto’s dying declaration. She talks about her murderers from her grave and it is up to the world to listen to the echoes’, Zardari had stated. Benazir Bhutto wrote to Wolf Blitzer in her e-mail: “If it is God’s will, nothing will happen to me. But if anything happened to me, I would hold General Pervez Musharraf responsible”. Blitzer received the e-mail on October 26, 2007 from Mark Siegel, a friend and long-time Washington-based spokesman for Benazir. That was eight days after she had narrowly escaped a twin suicide attempt on her life in Karachi. Bhutto wrote to Wolf: “I have been made to feel insecure by Musharraf’s minions”.

Ms Benazir had pointed out in her mail that she had not received the requested improvements to her security and was being prevented from using private cars or vehicles equipped with tinted windows. Bhutto added that she had also not been provided with signal jammers to prevent remote controlled bombs or with police mobile outriders to cover her vehicle. According to Mark Siegel, Benazir had asked permission to bring in trained security personnel from abroad. She repeatedly tried to get visas for his security staff, but the Musharraf regime had denied them the same. A US-based security agency Blackwater and a London-based firm Armor Group, which guards UK diplomats in the Middle East, were not allowed to protect Benazir, despite the fact that she had urged Musharraf to improve her security after the Karachi suicide bomb attack, besides requesting American and British diplomats to pressurize Musharraf in providing adequate security to her. But Musharraf never listened.

However, despite all these developments, the Musharraf regime took no time in blaming Baitullah Mehsud for the Bhutto murder in spite of repeated denials by the TTP chief. Baitullah was first accused of masterminding the Bhutto murder by Interior Ministry Spokesman, Brig (retd) Javed Iqbal Cheema and afterward by General Musharraf. In his December 28, 2007 press conference, a day after the assassination, Cheema had claimed that the suicide bomber, who blew himself up near Benazir’s bullet proof vehicle, was an al-Qaeda operative hailing from the Baitullah group. In his televised address five days after the murder on January 2, 2007, Musharraf had asked Scotland Yard to help the Pakistani investigators in identifying the culprits. Yet, in the mind of the General, it was obviously clear who is to be blamed.

At his December 28, 2007 news conference, Brig. (retd) Cheema said: “We just have an intelligence intercept that was recorded this morning in which Baitullah Mehsud congratulated his people for carrying out the cowardly act [of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination]. He was quick to distribute among the media persons the English and Urdu transcriptions of recorded conversation which he claimed had taken place between two persons Baitullah Mehsud and Maulvi Sahib and that both had been congratulating each other over the success of the operation to eliminate Bhutto.

But despite repeated demands by the newsmen attending the press conference, neither the original tape was provided nor was it proven that the recorded voice was that of Baitullah. On December 29, 2007, a day after Brig (retd) Cheema’s press conference, PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar had refuted the Musharraf regime’s claim. He told newsmen that after the October 28, 2007 suicide attack in Karachi, Benazir had received a message from Baitullah: “Identify your enemy, I am not your foe, I have nothing to do with you or against you or with the assassination attempt on you on October 18 in Karachi”. The top PPP leadership trusted the message, Babar had said, adding that the message was conveyed by Baitullah Mehsud through two different reliable emissaries.

A day after the assassination attempt during her welcome procession in Karachi, Bhutto had stated during a press conference in Karachi that people like Baitullah Mehsud were mere pawns and what worried her was the threat from within the Musharraf regime. On his part, Baitullah Mehsud too was quick to issue denials. His spokesman, Maulvi Omar, said on December 29, 2007, a day after the Interior Ministry spokesman’s press conference: “Why on earth would we kill Benazir Bhutto? We had no enmity with her and more importantly, she had done no wrong to us… By blaming us for the murder of Benazir Bhutto, Musharraf is attempting to portray the tribal areas as centers of terrorists so as to earn dollars from his Western masters. We are equally grieved by the tragic death of Benazir Bhutto and extend our sympathies to her family as well as the Pakistan People’s Party workers…”

Maulvi Omar said that Commander Baitullah Mehsud, after learning about the allegations against him and sensing gravity of those charges, had convened an emergency meeting of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s Shura (council) at a secret location somewhere between South and North Waziristan. “Addressing the participants, he made it clear that harming a woman was against the teachings of Islam and Shariah as well as the centuries-old rich traditions of the Pakhtun tribal people. Commander Baitullah accused the Pakistani intelligence agencies for the murder of Benazir Bhutto and said the modus operandi and precision of the Rawalpindi strike clearly indicated that the grisly murder, carried out by using a skilled sniper first, to be followed by a suicide bomber, was committed by some highly trained professional hands”.

But the Musharraf administration was adamant to prove that the assassination was masterminded by none other than Baitullah Mehsud. Reacting to Baitullah’s statement, the Interior Ministry spokesman reiterated on December 30, 2007 that the TTP chief had threatened to kill Benazir upon her return in October 2007, and was also behind the first attempt on her life in Karachi the same month which killed over 140 and wounded 500. Brig. Cheema quoted Baitullah as having threatened on October 6, 2007 to launch suicide attacks against Benazir, saying his bombers were waiting in the wings to welcome her when she would return. “My men will welcome Bhutto upon her return. We don’t accept Musharraf and Benazir because they only protect the Americans and see things through US glasses. They are only acceptable if they wear the Pakistani glasses”, Cheema had quoted Baitullah as having stated.

But the very next day, on December 31, 2007, Baitullah had strongly reacted to Cheema’s accusations and rejected involvement in the October 18 2007 suicide attack in Karachi, saying he had neither issued any such statement nor could he think of ordering an attack that would kill innocent civilians in such a large number. Two months later, on March 1, 2008, Baitullah Mehsud was declared a proclaimed offender with an arrest warrant issued for him by an anti-terrorist court in the garrison town of Rawalpindi.

On December 27, 2008, while speaking on the first anniversary of Bhutto’s death, President Asif Zardari had claimed that he knew the killers of Benazir and that he would reveal their identity at the right time. On July 6, 2009, President Asif Zardari had blamed Pervez Musharraf for the Bhutto murder, claiming that she died by a bullet and not by the bomb that a Scotland Yard report identified as the cause. “I wish Musharraf had looked after my wife as I can look after myself,” President Zardari told British newspaper The Telegraph in an interview.

Therefore, the haste with which the Musharraf regime had proceeded against Baitullah Mehsud to establish him as Bhutto’s killer, and that too without any solid evidence, seems to be a crude attempt to make him a scapegoat to hush-up of one of the most high-profile murder cases in the recent history of South Asia.

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