U.S. suspects Taliban leader behind Bhutto plot

Posted in Broader Middle East | 29-Dec-07 | Source: CNN

Benazir Bhutto greets supporters Thursday at the Rawalpindi, Pakistan, rally before a suicide attack.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- U.S. officials suspect a Taliban leader may be behind the plot to assassinate former Pakistani Prime Minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, a senior official said Friday.

The official identified Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud as a leading suspect, saying there's "good information that leads us to believe he is the guy responsible."

On Saturday, a spokesman for Mehsud denied his involvement, The Associated Press reported.

Earlier Friday, the Pakistani Interior Ministry said it had "intelligence intercepts" indicating he was behind Bhutto's death the day before in Rawalpindi.

"As you all know, Benazir Bhutto had been on the hit list of terrorists ever since she had come to Pakistan," said the Interior Ministry spokesman, Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema. "She was on the hit list of al Qaeda."

Cheema said the Pakistani government intercepted a phone call Friday in which Mehsud "congratulated his people for carrying out this cowardly act."

Cheema said his government had "irrefutable evidence" that al Qaeda was "systematically targeting our state institutions in order to destabilize the country."

Cheema said Saturday the Pakistan government did not need the help of the international community in investigating the killing.

"This is not an ordinary criminal case," he said, briefing reporters at a news conference. "This is an act of terrorism." Cheema underscored that the links to the death are in the Pakistani region of Waziristan, which has an al Qaeda and Taliban presence

"We understand our environment better than the internatinal community. Scotland Yard cannot investigate in Waziristan. They don't understand Pashto."

In the phone intercept that Pakistani officials released Friday, Mehsud is apparently speaking in the Pashto language to another militant, whom he called Maulavi Sahib, or religious leader. The following is from the transcript:

Mehsud: Congratulations to you. Were they ours?

Maulavi Sahib: Yes, it was us.

Mehsud: Who was there?

Maulavi Sahib: Saeed was there, second there was Bilal from Badar and Ikramullah.

Mehsud: All three of them did it?

Maulavi Sahib: Ikramullah and Bilal did it.

Mehsud: Then congratulations.

Maulavi Sahib: Where are you? I want to meet.

Mehsud: I am in Makeen [town in the southern part Waziristan]. Come over. I am at Anwar Shah's house.

Later in the conversation, Mehsud said, "Fantastic job. Very brave boys, the ones who killed her."

No one has accepted responsibility for Bhutto's death on radical Islamist Web sites that regularly post such messages from al Qaeda and other militant groups. PhotoSee photos of the chaos in Pakistan »

Robert Grenier, former CIA station chief in Pakistan and former head of the CIA's counterterrorism center, describes Mehsud as an Islamic radical leader in northwest Pakistan's South Waziristan closely associated with the Taliban.

Grenier said that Mehsud spoke publicly before Bhutto's return to Pakistan in October after her self-exile that the former prime minister was marked for assassination.

The Los Angeles Times reported Friday that Mehsud allegedly pledged to dispatch suicide bombers against Bhutto but that Mehsud has denied that allegation.

The Interior Ministry also said earlier the suicide bomber belonged to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni Muslim militant group with links to al Qaeda, Pakistan's GEO TV reported.

There was no sign the group has claimed responsibility for the attack on the Pakistan opposition leader.

The U.S. State Department lists Lashkar-e-Jhangvi as a terrorist organization and said it had links to the Taliban. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf banned the group in 2001.

Also Friday, the state-run news agency Associated Press of Pakistan reported al Qaeda had claimed responsibility for killing Bhutto.

The agency quoted Cheema as saying: "Al Qaeda in a statement has accepted the responsibility of her assassination, as in the past she had been receiving life threats from this terrorist group."

CNN could not independently confirm that al Qaeda has claimed responsibility.

Bhutto, 54, died as a result of a fractured skull after hitting her head on a sunroof lever of her vehicle, Cheema said.

He said Bhutto suffered no bullet or shrapnel wounds, contradicting all previous government statements regarding her injuries. Authorities had said Bhutto was targeted by gunshots seconds before a suicide bombing as she was leaving a rally.

On Thursday, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin citing an alleged claim of responsibility by al Qaeda for Bhutto's death, a DHS official said.

But FBI and other law enforcement officials said the claim was unsubstantiated and that federal officials are not making any comments about its validity.

Italian news agency Adnkronos International apparently was the source of this claim, saying the terror network's Afghan commander and spokesman Mustafa Abu Al-Yazid had telephoned the agency with it.

"We terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat [the] mujahedeen," the Italian news agency quoted Al-Yazid as saying.

The agency said that al Qaeda's No. 2 official, Ayman al-Zawahiri, set the wheels in motion for Bhutto's assassination in October.

The DHS official said the claim was "an unconfirmed open source claim of responsibility" and the bulletin was sent out at about 6 p.m. Thursday to state and local law enforcement agencies.

FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said the validity of such a claim is "undetermined." Kolko said the FBI and the intelligence community is reviewing it "for any intelligence value."

CNN's Jeanne Meserve and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.