Bhutto killing an act of 'immense brutality': Afghan president

Kabul, December 27, 2007 (AFP): Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Thursday's assassination of Benazir Bhutto, whom he had met just hours earlier, was an act of "immense brutality" and a "big loss for all of us."

Karzai, who had held talks with Bhutto on the final day of a state visit to Pakistan, blamed her killing on the "enemies" of Pakistan and of peace who were afraid of her strength.

"We in Afghanistan condemn this act of cowardice and immense brutality in the strongest possible terms," Karzai told a news briefing called in reaction to the assassination.

"I am deeply sorry, deeply pained that this brave sister of us, this great daughter of the Muslim world is no longer with us."

"She sacrificed her life for the sake of Pakistan and for the sake of the region," he said.

Karzai returned Thursday from an overnight visit to Pakistan during which he met Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf.

"I found her to be a very, very brave woman with a clear vision for her own country, for Afghanistan and for the region, a vision of democracy and prosperity and peace," he told reporters.

Bhutto had shown a desire for peace in Afghanistan and good relations between the neighbours, Karzai said. "This is a big loss for all of us."

Kabul and Islamabad have been at odds over a wave of Taliban- and Al-Qaeda-linked violence that has intensified in Afghanistan for two years and in Pakistan in recent months.

Afghan officials had said privately that Afghanistan had been hoping Bhutto, the main opposition leader in January 8 elections, would help to improve relations between the neighbours and their cooperation in the fight against extremism that is plaguing both.

Karzai has regularly called for this fight to be tackled at its roots, which he says is in militant sanctuaries in Pakistan, instead of being focussed in Afghanistan where there 60,000 international soldiers working to defeat a growing Taliban-led insurgency.

The Afghan president, who has survived two assassination attempts, said Bhutto's views "were so strong that no doubt those who are against peace and stability in this part of the world were afraid of her."

And "that was why through an act of cowardice, they killed her. But she's so strong and her memories are so strong that there'll be other torch-bearers of her path in peace and the fight against terror will succeed," he said.

There was no claim of responsibility for the attack but Bhutto had accused elements in the intelligence services of trying to kill her. She also said she had received death threats from Islamic militant groups including Al-Qaeda.

She had just addressed a campaign rally for the parliamentary vote when an attacker shot her in the neck before blowing himself up at a park in the northern city of Rawalpindi, killing her and at least 16 others, police said.

Afghanistan has this year seen a spike in extremist unrest, including more than 140 suicide attacks claimed for the most part by Taliban extremists.

The Taliban were removed from Afghan government in late 2001 in a US-led invasion unleashed after the hardliners did not hand over their Al-Qaeda allies for the 9/11 attacks.

After the attack, leaders of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are said to have fled into Pakistan where they created sanctuaries in tribally administered areas.

Pakistan was one of only three countries that recognised the harsh Taliban regime.