ISLAMABAD (AFP) — British detectives said Friday that Benazir Bhutto was killed by the force of a suicide bomb and not gunfire, backing the Pakistani government's controversial account of how the opposition leader died.
Scotland Yard said a lone assassin shot at Bhutto as she waved to supporters at an election rally in Rawalpindi on December 27 -- but he missed and then detonated explosives which fatally smashed her skull against her car.
Bhutto's party immediately rejected the findings, insisting that the two-time former premier was slain by a bullet and reiterating calls for a United Nations inquiry into her murder.
"In essence, all the evidence indicates that one suspect has fired the shots before detonating an improvised explosive device," said a summary of the British report, delivered to Pakistani authorities earlier in the day.
"The blast caused a violent collision between her head and the escape hatch area of the vehicle, causing a severe and fatal head injury," added the summary, signed by British Detective Superintendent John MacBrayne.
The findings have caused fresh controversy ahead of general elections in Pakistan on February 18. The polls were postponed by six weeks because of deadly riots sparked by Bhutto's assassination.
President Pervez Musharraf invited the British investigators to Pakistan in January in a bid to end uncertainty over the killing, and the team of forensics and other experts spent two and a half weeks here.
The government has blamed an Al-Qaeda-linked warlord based in Pakistan's troubled tribal areas for the attack and has repeatedly said that the blast caused the injury, although it initially said there were two attackers.
Bhutto's aides have said they saw bullet wounds as they bathed her corpse before burial. They have also criticised Pakistani authorities for hosing down the scene hours after the attack.
"The party is still looking at the Scotland Yard report -- however, it is difficult to agree with its findings on the cause of death," Pakistan People's Party spokeswoman Sherry Rehman told AFP.
"We do believe that she was killed by an assassin's bullet," she added.
Rehman said Scotland Yard was hampered by the fact that the officers were working under Pakistani police, and that their inquiry was limited to the cause of death and not the network behind the attack.
The British team admitted its task was complicated by the "lack of an extended and detailed search of the crime scene, the absence of an autopsy, and the absence of recognised body recovery and victim identification processes."
But it added that there was sufficient evidence to draw "reliable conclusions," including X-rays checked against Bhutto's dental records and video footage taken by witnesses.
"The only tenable cause for the rapidly fatal head injury in this case is that it occurred as the result of impact due to the effects of the bomb-blast," it quoted British government pathologist Nathaniel Cary as saying.
Musharraf himself recently admitted it was possible that Bhutto was shot. The government however says that her family's refusal to allow an autopsy made it more difficult to establish the cause of death.
The Pakistani government said it was thankful to the British government and police for their "dedicated professionalism."
"Now the focus of the investigation is on catching the culprits behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto which grieved the entire nation," Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier Javed Cheema said.
The Scotland Yard report is however unlikely to make much difference to the ongoing debate about who was to blame.
Musharraf and the US Central Intelligence Agency have blamed Baitullah Mehsud for masterminding the killing, an accusation he denies.
Bhutto said in an autobiography to be published posthumously that she had warnings that four suicide squads were after her -- one sent by Mehsud and another by a son of Osama bin Laden.
But she also accused a cabal of top intelligence and government officials of plotting to kill her, notably in an attack when she returned from exile in Karachi on October 18 that left 139 people dead.
Pakistani investigators said on Thursday that they had arrested two "very important alleged terrorists" in Rawalpindi in connection with Bhutto's murder. They are still being questioned.
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