Bhutto's party ends mourning, vows to fight for democracy

(dpa) - The political party of Benazir Bhutto finished a 40-day mourning period Thursday for the assassinated opposition leader, pledging to fight for democracy as violence-plagued Pakistan braced for crucial upcoming parliamentary elections.

Thousands of faithful from the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) gathered at Bhutto's grave near her family's ancestral home in Naudero, in the southern province of Sindh, for a morning prayer ceremony.

The PPP, the country's largest political party, had been polling well when Bhutto was killed on December 27 in a gun and suicide bomb attack following an election speech in the city of Rawalpindi.

Following the end of the Muslim mourning period, called "Chehlum," the party will resume campaigning for the February 18 poll, which is meant to usher in a return of a democratically-elected civilian government following more than eight years of military rule.

"Our leader Benazir Bhutto was martyred during this cause," Bhutto's husband Asif Ali Zardari said while addressing a sea of sympathizers who gathered at the Bhutto family mausoleum in the village of Garhi Khuda Bukhsh.

He said Bhutto, a two-time prime minister, fought to end dictatorship, and that the opposition party would carry forward the same mission.

Zardari was named PPP co-chairman after Bhutto's death, and their 19-year-old son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was appointed titular chairman until he finishes his studies at Oxford University.

Bhutto's slaying touched off three days of rioting across Pakistan, mostly in her native Sindh province, forcing national election officials to postpone the polls from January 8 by five weeks.

But tensions remain high as the election approaches, with the country suffering a string of suicide bombings since New Year's Day, mostly aimed at security forces, which have killed more than 250 people.

In 2007, at least 700 people were killed in more than 50 suicide bombings in Pakistan, nearly all of which have been blamed on Islamic militants linked to the Taliban and al-Qaeda who have regrouped in Pakistan's north-west tribal areas near Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials have said the militants were attempting to sow chaos across the country, derail the elections, and ultimately topple the government.

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