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Bhutto warns al-Qaida, Taliban gaining ground in Pakistan

KARACHI, Pakistan — Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto warned Sunday that Taliban and al-Qaida militants have gained ground in Pakistan, making her first public appearance since narrowly escaping a suicide assassination attempt that killed 136 people.

But she said the bombing could unite her and other forces opposed to extremism, including military ruler President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

"He's been the victim of assassination attacks and so have we," Bhutto told a small group of journalists inside her heavily guarded Karachi residence. "I think certainly it will unite all those who are against extremism."

Bhutto's return from an eight-year exile follows negotiations with Musharraf that could bring the longtime rivals together after January elections and see the corruption charges against her vanish.

Bhutto, who is vying to become prime minister for a third time, has kept up her strong rhetoric against military rule and accuses elements within Musharraf's administration and security services of plotting to kill her.

She said military rule had only fueled militancy, and warned that mujahedeen forces were turning their attention from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

"The Taliban has regrouped and according to intelligence network estimates al-Qaida is also regrouping. It's become clear that dictatorship is not working, that it's actually making the situation more chaotic and anarchic," she said.

But Bhutto's criticism has been tempered by conciliatory comments, suggesting that she views an alliance with Musharraf — a key U.S. ally in its war on terrorism — as her political destiny, one with the backing of Western governments.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan on Thursday, but her jubilant greeting by more than 150,000 supporters was shattered by the bombing just before midnight.

Using a device laden with nuts, bolts and ball bearings, the attacker — yet to be identified — killed about 50 of her party's security detail, at least 18 police escorting her and scores of supporters and bystanders.

Three days after the carnage, the former premier popped out of her fortified home to visit some of the wounded at a Karachi hospital, then visited a shrine in one of the poorest quarters of the volatile city.

Hundreds of supporters chanted "Prime Minister Benazir!" as she left after the 15-minute hospital visit, guarded by armed police.

She also held prayers of mourning at her house with about 100 women, many of them widowed in Thursday's attack, while thousands of her supporters gathered for a prayer service elsewhere in Karachi. Some shouted for revenge but the cleric leading the prayers appealed for calm. Hundreds more gathered in Peshawar and Lahore.

Bhutto conceded she felt a little weary but appeared upbeat when she met reporters in a lounge adorned with photos of polo horses and a pencil sketch of her husband Asif Ali Zardari, who still lives abroad.

She said she had been lucky to escape injury in the attack as she was at the back of the interior of her armored truck when the bomb went off, but found her ear bleeding the morning after.

Bhutto brushed off criticism that it was a wrong to stage the rally — designed to show Pakistan and the world that she remains a powerful political force in her homeland despite her years in exile following her two corruption-tainted governments. By her own admission, she had received intelligence before her return to Pakistan that four al-Qaida and Taliban suicide bombing squads were out to kill her.

"I don't think it was a mistake. I think that rally showed that the people of Pakistan rejected militants and extremists," she said, although she added that in future she would not give prior notice of her movements.

"We have to modify our campaign to some extent because of the suicide bombings," Bhutto said. "We will continue to meet the public. We will not be deterred."

She urged Britain and the U.S. to lend expertise for the investigation, and called for an independent inquiry into why many streetlights were not working when her convoy was inching its way through the darkness.

"We believe it was sabotage," she said.

She further voiced concern that the chief investigator was a senior Karachi police officer who had been present while her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, was allegedly tortured in custody on corruption charges in 1999.

Musharraf has promised to conduct a thorough probe into the bombing — reminiscent of the two bombings that targeted him in December 2003 in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. He escaped injury, but at least 16 other people were killed.

Police are questioning three people over Thursday's attack but have yet to announce any breakthrough in their investigation.

The government has rejected Bhutto's allegation that elements within the current administration and security apparatus were trying to kill her. She claims they are remnants of the regime of former military leader Gen. Zia-ul Haq, who oversaw the creation of mujahedeen groups that fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Veterans of that struggle later formed al-Qaida and the Taliban.

"I have shared with the presidency who I think is out to eliminate me. The presidency does not share my views, so out of deference to them I have not publicly named them," she said.

Associated Press writers Ashraf Khan in Karachi and Munir Ahmad in Islamabad contributed to this report.