Pakistan president attacks conspiracies

2011-12-27 22:11

Garhi Khuda Bakhsh - Pakistan's embattled president on Tuesday vigorously defended his rule and urged the nation to foil "conspiracies against democracy" on the anniversary of his wife Benazir Bhutto's murder.

Asif Ali Zardari addressed at least 300 000 mourners at the Bhutto mausoleum in his first public speech since being treated in hospital in Dubai, brushing his illness under the carpet and delivering a veiled barb against the army.

It was a rambling, at times incoherent performance designed to hit back against rising tensions with the military, agitations from the political opposition and persistent speculation that his days in office are numbered.

"Today we pay tributes to her. The best way to do it is to defend and protect democracy and democratic institutions in the country and foil all conspiracies against it," Zardari said in a statement issued by his office.

Bhutto, who was twice elected prime minister, was killed in a gun and suicide attack on December 27 2007 in the garrison city of Rawalpindi after addressing an election rally. No one has ever been convicted of her killing.

Addressing the mourners at Garhi Khuda Bakhsh in southern Pakistan, Zardari issued a jab against the army by invoking Nobel laureate and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who campaigned against military rule in Myanmar.

"Making a nation is the art of the impossible and I believe that I am doing the art of the impossible," he shouted from behind bullet-proof glass.

"Today America needs Aung San Suu Kyi. She is a little girl sitting at a place and the superpower walks towards her. This is the way to fight, adopt this way," he said.

Pulled a muscle

Zardari tackled head on speculation about his health following eight days in hospital this month for an illness which has not been publicly disclosed but which aides likened to a mini stroke with no lasting effects.

"It was said that I am medically out. I am not medically out, but yes just like your muscle was pulled, maybe my muscle was also pulled," he said.

Tensions have soared between the army and government over a memo allegedly written by one of Zardari's aides that asked for US intervention to stave off a feared military coup.

Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, last week denied rumours that his military was plotting to overthrow the government.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani subsequently denied rumours that he wanted to sack Kayani or ISI spymaster general Ahmad Shuja Pasha.

Kayani and Pasha have backed calls for an investigation into the memo, sent on May 10 and offering to overhaul the security leadership in exchange for American help to reign in the military after the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Police said at least 300 000 people gathered at Bhutto's mausoleum, converging outside the heavily guarded perimeter of the compound to pay their respects, beating their chests and demanding that her killers be arrested.

The ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) had been anxious to represent the fourth Bhutto anniversary as a show of support, two days after political newcomer and national sporting hero Imran Khan attracted large crowds in Karachi, the country's biggest city.

Arrest Benazir's killers

Around 6 000 policemen, hundreds of paramilitary officers, electronic gates, aerial surveillance and sniffer dogs were ensuring security, police said.

"We want revenge. Arrest Benazir's killers," the mourners chanted, carrying party flags and photographs of Bhutto, eulogising her and her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged under military rule, an AFP photographer said.

Bhutto's son, Bilawal, who is co-chair with his father of the PPP, appealed for democracy to prevail in an editorial written in the English-language Express Tribune newspaper.

"We must remain committed to the evolution of a democratic Pakistan and reject the calls for confrontation between institutions," he wrote.

He also appealed to anti-Americanism, which has recently been inflamed by US air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on November 26.

"It is only under a democratic government that Pakistan finally stood up to demand respect from the United States and to do what the dictator with all his military might could not - evacuate the Shamsi airbase," wrote Bilawal.

The Americans were ordered to leave the airbase, widely believed to have been a hub for a now stalled drone war on Islamist militants, this month as part of Pakistan's retaliation for the November 26 air strikes.