Benazir Bhutto's triumphant homecoming to Pakistan turned to deadly carnage last night when two car bombs ripped through crowds surrounding the former prime minister's truck as it made its way through Karachi, killing at least 120 people and wounding hundreds more.
Ms Bhutto, who had returned after eight years of exile, escaped unharmed but there was no doubt she was the target of a carefully planned assassination attempt. A small explosion was followed by a huge blast just feet from the front of her vehicle, shattering its windows and setting a police escort on fire. Four bullets were also fired at the convoy, reports said.
Ms Bhutto could be seen in television pictures being lowered from the bottom deck of her truck. Azhar Farooqi, a police commander, said she was rushed from the area under contingency plans to return her to her Karachi residence. "She was evacuated very safely," he added.
Ghulam Mohammed Mohtaram, the provincial home secretary, said the main impact of the blast was absorbed by the police vehicle. Dozens of bodies could be seen lying motionless at the scene; other victims were writhing around in agony.
Seemi Jamali, a doctor at the nearby Jinnah Hospital, said his casualty unit had taken in 19 dead and 70 wounded. Between 20 and 25 of the injured were in a critical condition. Another medic at the Liaqat National Hospital reported 30 dead and 80 hurt, many critically.
Men were seen running away from the scene, some stretchering the wounded to hospitals as blood streamed down the white robes worn by many of them.
The perpetrators of the bombs – which police indicated might have been suicide attacks – were not immediately clear. Earlier, however, the pro-Western Mrs Bhutto had criticised Islamic militants groups whose threats had overshadowed her return to Pakistan. She has previously infuriated al-Qa'ida sympathisers by offering support to the US in its efforts to find the terror group's leader, Osama bin Laden.
In Washington, the National Security Council spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, said: "The US condemns the violent attack in Pakistan and mourns the loss of innocent life there. Extremists will not be allowed to stop Pakistanis from selecting their representatives through an open and democratic process."
Last night's atrocity cast an appalling shadow over what had seemed only hours earlier like a mass celebration for a much-loved figure who was twice elected prime minister during the 1980s and 1990s. More than 150,000 jubilant supporters surrounded the convoy carrying the former leader, shouting "long live Bhutto".
Ms Bhutto had refused to travel around Pakistan's largest city by helicopter, as officials had advised her to do for security reasons. "I am not scared. I am thinking of my mission," she told reporters en route from Dubai to Pakistan. "This is a movement for democracy because we are under threat from extremists ." Nonetheless, at least 20,000 security personnel had been deployed to provide protection, amid intelligence reports which suggested that at least three militant groups were plotting suicide attacks. Mrs Bhutto described the trip as a " wonderful" homecoming. "I counted the hours, I counted the minutes and the seconds, just to see this land, to see the grass, to see the sky," she added, clutching prayer beads and dressed in a green shalwar kameez and a white headscarf.
Ms Bhutto, who some accuse of corruption during her premiership, returned with the agreement of General Pervez Musharraf – himself a highly controversial figure – who last month secured a new term as president, though this has yet to be ratified.
Ms Bhutto became the first female head of a Muslim state when she was sworn in as prime minister in 1988. She was deposed 20 months later under President Ghulam Ishaq amid claims that she laundered state money through Swiss bank accounts. She was re-elected in 1993 but again sacked by the president in 1996 on similar charges. Three years later, she moved to Dubai in exile and, until yesterday, she had not returned.
Last night, the Pakistani ambassador to the US, Mahmud Ali Durrani, confirmed that Ms Bhutto had survived the attempt on her life. "We are... sad about the loss of life but the good news is that Benazir is safe," he said.