LONDON (Reuters) – World leaders voiced outrage at the assassination on Thursday of Pakistan‘s opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and expressed fears for the fate of the nuclear-armed state.
U.S. President George W. Bush condemned the killing as a “cowardly act” and urged Pakistanis to go ahead with a planned election. Russian President Vladimir Putin called it “a barbaric act of terrorism” that was a challenge to the world.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Bhutto had risked everything to try and bring democracy to her country, of which Britain used to be the colonial ruler.
“The terrorists must not be allowed to kill democracy in Pakistan,” he said.
Bhutto was killed in a gun and bomb attack as she left a rally ahead of an election due on January 8. The identity of the attacker was not immediately clear, but Islamist militants have been blamed for a previous assassination bid.
“The subcontinent has lost an outstanding leader who worked for democracy and reconciliation in her country,” said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, Pakistan’s giant neighbor and nuclear rival.
“The manner of her going is a reminder of the common dangers that our region faces from cowardly acts of terrorism and of the need to eradicate this dangerous threat.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the killing odious.
“France, like the European Union, is particularly attached to stability and democracy in Pakistan,” he said in a letter to Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf.
Pakistan was already a big global worry.
The U.S. ally has been struggling to contain Islamist violence while Musharraf, whose popularity has slumped, only lifted a state of emergency on December 15 after six weeks.
Bush urged Pakistanis to honor Bhutto’s memory by continuing with the democratic process and said those behind the attack must be brought to justice.
“The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act by murderous extremists who are trying to undermine Pakistan’s democracy,” he told reporters at his Texas ranch.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the assassination was a “heinous crime” and an “assault on stability” in Pakistan.
Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Union’s executive arm, the European Commission, said it was “an attack against democracy and against Pakistan.”
Police said a suicide bomber fired shots at Bhutto, 54, as she left the rally in a park in the city of Rawalpindi before blowing himself up. Police said 16 people died in the blast.
The 53-nation Commonwealth, which suspended Pakistan over the emergency rule declaration, said the assassination was “a dark day for Pakistan and the Commonwealth.”
Saudi King Abdullah said the attackers were “wicked murderers who are distant from Islam and morals.”
Iran‘s foreign ministry condemned the attack and urged calm and stability in Pakistan.
A Vatican spokesman said Pope Benedict had been informed, adding:
“It is difficult to see any glimmer of hope, peace, reconciliation in this country.”