RAWALPINDI, Pakistan: Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated Thursday, throwing the country into deeper political turmoil.
The assassination has cast doubts on whether Pakistan would go to the polls on January 8, as scheduled.
Police said a man fired at her as she was leaving an election rally in Rawalpindi before blowing himself up. Bhutto ducked after hearing the shots but one bullet hit her in the neck and a second her chest. Ary-One Television said she was shot in the head.
Police said 16 other people were killed in the blast at the election rally in a park. It was Bhutto's second open election meeting in Rawalpindi after her return from an eight-year self-imposed exile.
"She has been martyred," said her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) official Rehman Malik.
"The man (suicide bomber) first fired at Bhutto's vehicle. She ducked and then he blew himself up," said police officer Mohammad Shahid.
The 54-year-old former prime minister was rushed to a hospital in Rawalpindi, but died of her injuries despite an emergency surgery.
"It is the act of those who want to disintegrate Pakistan because she was a symbol of unity. They... are enemies of Pakistan," senior PPP official Farzana Raja told Reuters.
A witness said he heard two shots moments before the blast. Another witness saw bodies and a mutilated human head strewn on a road alongside the park.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said the assassination was the work of terrorists and sought people's support.
"This cruelty is the work of those terrorists with whom we are fighting," Musharraf said in a brief televised address.
He has declared three days of mourning.
US President George W. Bush said those responsible for the killing of Bhutto 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 said. "Those who committed this crime must be brought to justice."
Bhutto escaped an earlier suicide attack when a bomber blew himself up, killing nearly 150 people, on October 19 as she paraded through the southern city of Karachi on her return from exile.
Islamic militants were blamed for that attack, but Bhutto had said she was prepared to face the danger to help the country.
In her speech Thursday, Bhutto spoke of the risks she faced. "I put my life in danger and came here because I feel this country is in danger. People are worried. We will bring the country out of this crisis," Bhutto told the rally.
People cried and hugged each other in front the hospital where she died.
Another opposition leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif spoke to the crowd. "My heart is bleeding and I'm as grieved as you are," he said.