RAWALPINDI, Dec 27: An assassin’s bullet killed Benazir Bhutto on Thursday in what the government described as a gun-and-bomb suicide attack immediately after the former prime minister had addressed an election rally of her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) at Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh park.

The attack targeting Pakistan’s most prominent opposition leader, which also killed at least 21 other people and wounded about 60, dealt a new shock to a world already troubled by political terrorism and clouded the process of the general election set for Jan 8 and the country’s political future.

Ms Bhutto was driving out of the park after speaking to a big election rally when, according to witnesses and police officials, the attacker struck first with gunfire and then blew himself up possibly with an explosive device strapped to his body.

Witnesses said they first heard four or five gunshots as Ms Bhutto appeared from the sun-roof of her white bullet-proof four-wheel drive Toyota Landcruiser to wave to her followers chanting “jiay Bhutto (long live Bhutto) outside the northern gate of the park, and then saw her disappearing into the vehicle before a big explosion damaged the jeep rear and turned the scene into a killing ground. Hardly anybody at the scene seemed to know at the time she had been hit by bullets and driven to the Rawalpindi General Hospital, where she was later pronounced dead at an operation theatre table.

Both security officials and PPP members said they had heard the gunshots but that Ms Bhutto was safe as reporters witnessed ambulances lifting the dead and wounded from a blood-splattered portion of Liaquat Road outside the park gate that was reserved on the day for the entry and exit of the PPP leader and her close associates.

Limbs of the victims were scattered in the area, including what was presumed to be the remnant of the head of the unidentified suicide bomber that looked like a lump of flesh when it was already turning dark.

While many people told reporters they did not know who fired the shots, at least one PPP student wing leader, Ayaz Khan Pappu, said he saw a man wearing shalwar-kamiz firing four shots at Ms Bhutto apparently from a 30-bore pistol before being blown up by the blast of what a police bomb disposal squad official called a 5kg device.

PPP leader Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who was accompanying Ms Bhutto in the car along with her political secretary Naheed Khan, told a news conference later in Islamabad that he also heard four shots when the former prime minister was waving to the crowd from the vehicle’s sun-roof before slumping on her seat.

He said she would have remained safe if she had not looked out of the sun-roof.

Ms Bhutto was driven to hospital from Liaquat Bagh in her own Landcruiser though its tyres had burst because of the explosion, but was shifted mid-way to another vehicle, that of PPP information secretary Sherry Rehman.

Pappu, the president of the Rawalpindi city chapter of the PPP’s student wing — People’s Students Federation — who himself was wounded by a splinter on his forehead, told Dawn by telephone that people outside Ms Bhutto’s car did not know at the time she had been hit though some suspected “something” had happened and it was later at the hospital that he learnt the bullets hit her in the neck and a temple.

The attack happened 70 days after Ms Bhutto survived the first assassination attempt on Oct 18 when a bomb attack on a welcoming procession in Karachi on her return from more than eight years of self-exile abroad killed about 150 people.

It removed from the scene the last remaining bearer from her family of the political legacy of her father, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who was executed, also in Rawalpindi, on April 5, 1979 by the then-military ruler Gen Mohammad Ziaul Haq following a controversial conspiracy-to-murder conviction.

Her youngest brother Shahnawaz Bhutto was found mysteriously dead on July 18, 1985 while living in exile in a French Riviera apartment while his only other brother, Murtaza Bhutto, was killed in a mysterious shooting outside his home in Karachi on Sept 20, 1996.

Ms Bhutto’s mother, Nusrat, who led the PPP for some years after Gen Zia toppled Mr Bhutto in a 1977 coup, has been very ill in recent years and has been living in Dubai with her daughter.

Ms Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari never seemed prepared for a leadership role despite being elected to parliament and being a minister in her cabinet during the last of her two short-lived tenures as prime minister, while younger sister, Sanam, has not engaged in politics.

Shortly before the attack, the Liaquat Bagh gathering of tens of thousands repeatedly chanted “Prime Minister Benazir”, as an expression of the party intent to make her prime minister again despite a controversial decree enforced by President Pervez Musharraf to restrict prime ministerial tenures to only two.

But that was not destined to happen, despite the PPP’s hopes that if elected to power in the Jan 8 elections, it would undo the decree that also hits former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Mr Zardari and the couple’s three children — two daughters and a son — who have lived with their mother in Dubai since the beginning of her exile in 1999, arrived in Islamabad on Thursday night to accompany Ms Bhutto’s body to Larkana for burial on Friday at the family graveyard in Garhi Khuda Bux.

Just as Ms Bhutto’s body was lying in hospital, speculations were rife about the likelihood of a postponement of the elections.

Pakistan Muslim League-N leader Nawaz Sharif announced a boycott of the elections hours after the incident while the PPP announced a 40-day mourning during which it would be in no mood to contest the polls.