Al Qaeda ally denies role in Bhutto slaying

PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Al Qaeda-linked Pakistani militant Baitullah Mehsud was not involved in the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, his spokesman said on Saturday, and blamed the government for killing her.

“I strongly deny it. Tribal people have their own customs. We don’t strike women,” Mehsud’s spokesman Maulvi Omar said by telephone from an undisclosed location.

The government said on Friday that Mehsud was responsible for Bhutto’s killing as she left an election rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, close to Islamabad, on Thursday.

Al Qaeda is actively trying to destabilize Pakistan, and there have been several assassination attempts on President Pervez Musharraf, his former prime minister Shaukat Aziz and former interior minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao.

But the militant’s spokesman said Bhutto was a victim of President Pervez Musharraf’s security apparatus, repeating a conspiracy theory many Pakistanis are willing to believe.

“This was a well-planned conspiracy carried out by the intelligence agencies, army and government for their own political motives,” said Omar, the official spokesman for the Taliban in Pakistan, adding his condemnation of the killing of Bhutto.

Mehsud is one of Pakistan’s most wanted militant leaders and is based in the South Waziristan tribal region on the Afghan border, known as a major sanctuary for al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Bhutto became dangerous to al Qaeda as she made her political comeback this year.

She said she would sanction U.S. attacks on al Qaeda targets in the tribal lands on the Afghan border if Pakistani forces were unable to carry out attacks themselves.

The notion of a woman leading the Islamic nation was also abhorrent to ultra conservative Muslims who subscribe to al Qaeda’s world view.

An interior ministry spokesman on Friday said authorities had intercepted a conversation between Mehsud and an unknown cleric exchanging greetings on the assassination.

An Urdu translation of the conversation, in the Pashto language, was also distributed to the reporters.

“It was a tremendous effort. They were really brave boys who killed her,” Mehsud said, according to the transcript.

Days before Bhutto’s return from more than eight years of self-imposed exile in October, the government had warned that three groups linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban, including Mehsud’s branch, were plotting suicide attacks against her.

But Mehsud issued a swift denial of any involvement in the attack on her homecoming parade that killed at least 139 people in Karachi after suspicion fell on him.

The guerrilla leader has caused Musharraf’s government and the army deep embarrassment.

In August Mehsud’s fighters captured more than 200 soldiers, who surrendered without a fight while traveling in a supply convoy in South Waziristan.

The soldiers were released two months later. Intelligence officials said 25 detained tribesmen were released in exchange.

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