KARACHI, Oct 18: Over 125 participants of a procession led by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto upon her return to the country lost their lives on Thursday night after two powerful blasts rocked the slow-moving motorcade edging its way past the Karsaz bridge, on Sharea Faisal.

At least 100 people were injured in the explosions.

Former FIA chief Rahman Malik told a private television channel that the explosions clearly targated Ms Benazir’s specially-built vehicle. He added that many top PPP leaders were injured.

Sources told Dawn that Ms Benazir was immediately taken to the Bilawal House before she could reach the Quaid’s Mausoleum where she was scheduled to address a waiting crowd. She was resting in the bullet-proof vehicle’s compartment when the blasts took place.

A Dawn reporter saw a severed head at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, fuelling speculation that the blasts were caused by a suicide bomber.

An ARY television channel cameraman was among the over 125 dead in the explosion. Some foreigners standing atop Ms Benazir’s vehicle were also injured.

Sources told Dawn that a man came running to Ms Benazir’s vehicle shouting “bomb, bomb”, causing the participants of the rally to panic. He blew up explosives as he neared the vehicle. The explosion caused the petrol tank of a nearby vehicle to explode, leaving a police van damaged.

The enraged participants of the rally thought that the explosives were planted in the police van and started venting their anger on the personnel of law-enforcement agencies. As semblance of normality returned, police officials started taking stock of the situation.

Sources in the JPMC told Dawn that the injured are being shifted from Aga Khan University Hospital and Liaquat National Hospital.

The former FIA chief Rahman Malik alleged that no cellphone jammers had been provided by the government as protection against suicide attacks – a charge stoutly denied by Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao.

Earlier, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto got an epic reception as she ended more than eight years of self-exile with an emotional homecoming on Thursday afternoon, pledging to hundreds of thousands of supporters to live and die with and for them.Hundreds of thousands of people had converged on Karachi’s international airport to give an unforgettable welcome to the People’s Party chief after she set foot on home soil in the face of death threats from militant groups.

Attempts by some government functionaries to persuade the PPP to shorten the route of the procession proved to be fruitless. Observers described the crowd as unprecedented. Most of them thought the turnout surpassed that of Lahore in 1986. Men and women of all ages and from all walks of life flocked to the airport, a merciless sun notwithstanding, from every nook and cranny of the country. The Bhutto loyalists used all forms of transport to reach Karachi — and many made use of their feet to do so.

All roads leading to the airport were choked with traffic since early in the morning as crowds started their trek soon after day-break.

They were dancing to the frenzy of drums, chanting slogans of Jiye Bhutto and Wazir-i-Azam Benazir etc.

Amid tight security at the airport, often causing inconvenience to the media covering the event, the Emirates flight carrying Ms Bhutto and her entourage landed at the Karachi airport around 1.45 in the afternoon.

As Ms Bhutto alighted from the aircraft at the old terminal, emotions overwhelmed her and tears spilled from her eyes as she touched the soil of Pakistan. She also prayed on her homecoming.

Ms Bhutto, who was threatened by Al Qaeda and other extremist forces, and also by the government, refused to take bullet proof glass wall shield on her specially made truck. Instead, she travelled in the traditional awami style of the PPP.

She claimed that Allah and the people would protect her from such threats. Wearing Imam Zamin (amulet) on her arms, the PPP chairperson greeted workers by waving at them. It was a clear message to the militants and the government that she was ready to take risks for a better future.

Her caravan covered a distance of over one kilometre from the airport terminal building to Star Gate in more than three hours as the charged crowd kept on dancing to the accompaniment of party songs.

Later talking to the media separately, Ms Bhutto, who was attired in great kamez and white shalwar and dopatta, said the massive turn out of the people from across the country on the streets of Karachi was a clear message that people of Pakistan wanted undiluted democracy in which they had the empowerment.

She thanked the MQM and the City Nazim for not obstructing in her homecoming. She also claimed that NRO the was not BB-specific.

Many analysts believed that Ms Bhutto’s arrival would transform the political landscape as President Pervez Musharraf battles growing unpopularity in the lead-up to the general elections in January 2008.

The turnout indicated that despite charges of corruption against Benazir, the Bhutto legacy still survives. It also promised a chance for all political stakeholders in the country to work for a real and lasting reconciliation in the country.