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Pakistani government rejects Bhutto call for help from foreign experts in bombing probe

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A senior government official on Monday rejected a call from Pakistan opposition leader Benazir Bhutto for U.S. and British experts to help investigate the suicide attack on her homecoming procession from overseas exile.

Bhutto said Sunday she wanted the foreign experts to assist in the inquiry into the Thursday night bombing in Karachi, which killed 136 people, wounded hundreds more, and raised the question of whether campaign rallies would be allowed ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections.

But Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said foreigners would not be brought into the investigation.

"I would categorically reject this," he said. "We are conducting the investigation in a very objective manner."

Bhutto, who escaped the blast because she had stepped into her armored bus minutes before the bomb went off, has called for an independent inquiry, questioning why many streetlights were not working as her convoy inched its way through the darkness, and noting the chief investigator is a police officer who had been present as her husband was allegedly tortured while in custody on corruption charges in 1999.

"The inquiry should be led by Pakistan, but the government should call on foreign experts so that the killers ... can be brought to justice without any doubts," she said Monday at the Karachi tomb of Pakistan's founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Her convoy had been heading to the tomb when the bombs went off.

She also appealed to the militants, saying, "The terrorists should lay down their arms. If there are any differences in opinion they should be resolved through dialogue."

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has promised a thorough investigation. Police are questioning three people but have yet to announce any breakthroughs.

Violence has long accompanied politics in Pakistan, as have conspiracy theories.

On Monday, the head of the ruling party reacted to Bhutto's accusations of possible government involvement in the attack by saying he could also raise the prospect of intrigue — and then accused Bhutto's husband of being behind the attack.

"We will also say all this was a conspiracy," Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain said on Geo television, saying Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, had plotted the attack with party leaders to raise sympathy for her.

Zardari "hatched a conspiracy and they implemented it," Hussain said, noting Bhutto had gone into the bus just before the explosions.

While he appeared to be speaking facetiously, his comments were also a way to make the accusation public, and presumably leave many people wondering if he could be serious.

The government has rejected Bhutto's allegation that elements within the 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 fight later formed al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Pro-Taliban Islamists and a popular former prime minister, meanwhile, on Monday condemned a ban on campaign rallies proposed after the suicide bombing, calling it an attempt to rig elections.

Freewheeling political rallies have long formed the core of campaigning in Pakistan.

Sadiq ul-Farooq, a leader of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party, claimed the proposal would prevent "popular opposition leaders from reaching their voters."

Sherpao said the proposal would allow gatherings in specific, well-protected areas, but would ban large processions and rallies. Further violence, he indicated, could lead to a rescheduling of the vote.

"We do not want to postpone the elections and we do not want any sort of any excuse for that," he said. "We want a peaceful, conducive atmosphere."

There are growing signs Musharraf and Bhutto are moving toward an alliance with a common mission to fight Islamic extremism, despite their longtime enmity.

That would leave Sharif, who was ousted when Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup, to lead an opposition likely to include religious parties bitterly opposed to Pakistan's front-line role in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

While authorities allowed Bhutto to return, Sharif was immediately deported when he flew to Pakistan on Sept. 10 from exile on a self-declared mission to force Musharraf from power.

Ul-Farooq insisted Sharif would try to return again in the next month. Sharif served two terms as prime minister in the 1990s and remains Pakistan's most popular politician, according to a recent poll.

Musharraf has pledged to quit his position as army chief and restore civilian rule if he secures another five-year presidential mandate.

Also on Monday, the military said the United States gave Pakistan 30 helicopters, boosting its capacity to fight Islamic militants along its border with Afghanistan.

The 26 Bell 412 utility helicopters and four refurbished Cobras were handed over to Pakistani officials at an air base south of the capital, a military statement said.

Washington has given Pakistan about $6 billion in security-related assistance since 2001 for assistance in fighting terrorism.

Associated Press writers Tim Sullivan and Sadaqat Jan in Islamabad and Matthew Pennington in Karachi contributed to this report.