President George W. Bush condemned the assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on Thursday, an act of violence that shredded U.S. hopes for democratic elections in the country that is a key ally in Bush's war on terrorism.
"The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan's democracy. Those who committed this crime must be brought to justice," Bush said in a statement to reporters at his Texas ranch.
The president praised Bhutto's courage in returning to Pakistan in October to participate in elections aimed at restoring a democratic government after eight years of military rule of President Pervez Musharraf.
"She knew that her return to Pakistan earlier this year put her life at risk," Bush said. "Yet she refused to allow assassins to dictate the course of her country."
Bhutto, 54, was killed in a gun and bomb attack after a rally in the city of Rawalpindi on Thursday. The assassination came less than two weeks before a January 8 election she hoped to win.
It was the second such attack since her return from exile. A suicide bomber targeted her motorcade in October as she made her way home through crowds of supporters, killing 139 people.
The United States was instrumental in Bhutto's return to Pakistan, working to convince Musharraf to give up his role as military chief and accept elections and a power-sharing arrangement with Bhutto, a former prime minister.
"The attack shows that there are still those in Pakistan trying to undermine reconciliation and democratic development," a State Department official said.
The Western-educated Bhutto was seen as a moderate who would support the U.S. struggle against al Qaeda and Taliban extremists believed to have taken refuge along Pakistan's lawless frontier with Afghanistan.
Her relationship with Musharraf frayed after her return to Pakistan, but the United States continued to support her as a central figure in its efforts to promote a democratic transition in the country.
It pressured Musharraf to release her from house arrest, which he had imposed to prevent her from leading a protest, and it sent Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte to try to revive a political deal between Bhutto and Musharraf in November.
Rick Barton, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the attack underscored the weakness of Musharraf and the military.
"These kinds of events really just prove the danger of growing extremism in the country and the lack of any real authority," he said.
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