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‘I have sent my men to welcome Benazir’

August 07, 2012

Baitullah Mehsud speaks to reporters. – File photo by AP
Baitullah Mehsud speaks to reporters. – File photo by AP

On August 6, 1990, Benazir Bhutto’s first government was dismissed on the charges of corruption. She came into power again but that government, too, was dismissed on similar grounds. She then went into exile and returned only to be assassinated.

On the morning of October 4, I got out of bed as usual, had breakfast and decided to wear a shalwar kameez because the man I was going to meet that day had religious inclinations. For him, the first impression of a pant-shirt wearing person could be that of being Westernised, secular or non-religious. I did not want our conversation to be overshadowed by a feeling of unnecessary caution. Anyway, I reached the Parliament Lodges on schedule at 10 am and knocked on his door.

Pakistan was at crossroads at the time. After dismissing Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry on May 9, 2007, military dictator Pervez Musharraf was losing his grip. Meanwhile, the government had become a target of criticism by the religious factions following the Lal Masjid operation in Islamabad. Right-wing parties, in particular, had slammed Musharraf’s government. Left-wing Pakistan People’s Party, however, was in favour of the operation and in fact, its exiled leader Benazir Bhutto, slammed the government for delaying the operation and claimed that had she been in power, the operation would have been carried out much earlier in a more effective manner.

Amidst such political climate, extremists had increased the intensity of suicide attacks in the country. In August, Baitullah Mehsud, along with his  men, had kidnapped around 150 soldiers in the tribal region of South Waziristan. Senator Saleh Shah, who was known to be a close friend of Mehsud, was – along with a few aides - trying to act as  mediator between the government and the militant leader to get the kidnapped soldiers released.

This was the time when Musharraf, realising his weakening grip on power, had secretly met with Bhutto in Dubai. The famous National Reconciliation Ordnance (NRO) 2007 was being finalised. (It was issued on October 5.)

The door was opened by Senator Shah's son. Senator Shah, a youngish, fair man, with an average height, hailed from South Waziristan. He had previously tried his luck at a seat in the Upper House but this was the first time he was elected to the Senate as a representative from South Waziristan.

Wearing his traditional tribal grey shalwar kameez and a light grey turban, Senator Shah entered his drawing room. His smile indicated a feeling of warmth but his face bore signs of seriousness. I introduced myself and told him that I work for an English newspaper. When I showed interest in the mediation process, he revealed that he had met Mehsud the previous day. He spoke in a kind and soft manner, but with carefully chosen words. He revealed that Mehsud had beheaded two soldiers the previous night. The news, he indicated, was exclusively being revealed to me and would be much sought-after by all investigative reporters.

I wrote down the details in my notebook and went ahead with my questions.

However, soon it became apparent that Senator Shah did not want to reveal much “on the record.” When I sought his views on the fairness of suicide attacks, he told me that since both the agencies and terrorists were very influential in his region, he didn’t want to say something that could endanger his life.

He said that under the prevailing circumstances, it was not possible to discuss the status of suicide attacks in the light of Sharia. After a few generic questions, I brought his attention towards General Musharraf and his secret meeting with Bhutto. I highlighted that left-wing parties had met with Musharraf and both shared a common stance against extremists, which had led to the consensus on NRO. “Have you never spoken to your friend Baitullah Mehsud about this? What does he think of the fact that they (Musharraf and left-wing parties) are planning to take action against Baitullah and his allies?”

Saleh Shah smiled at my question and said, “You have asked a good question. I have spoken to Baitullah about this. He does not fear anyone. Baitullah says Benazir is an American agent and he has sent his people to welcome her (when she returns to Pakistan).”

I quickly jotted down this reply in my notebook and shot my next question: This clearly means that Baitullah will target Benazir with a suicide attack?

After reaching work, I typed out the story and having gone through the resident editor, it reached my editor Najam Sethi, who took out the part about the soldiers’ beheading and turned the part about the threat Benazir Bhutto faced upon her return into a separate story and ran it as a leading story on the front page.

A day after the news was published, it created a stir in the country. All leading foreign and local news organisations monitored it with great interest. This was the first official news revealing the threat of assassination Bhutto faced upon her return.

Exactly two years later, when I was able to access secret documents related to Bhutto’s assassination, I found out that ten days after the publication of my story (October 15) Pakistan’s spy agency Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) had informed the then Secretary Defence Kamal Shah about a possible threat to her life.

The day my story was published by Daily Times, preparations were underway in Islamabad to elect Musharraf as president. Bhutto was in Dubai. Musharraf was in Islamabad. And Benazir’s assassins were busy planning their attack. Yet we had not fully realised that what was just a big story for us will turn into reality in the near future. Such is the life of a reporter.