Pakistan election campaign ends with bomb attack

February 16th, 2008 - 9:53 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Nawaz Sharif
Islamabad, Feb 16 (DPA) A suicide bomber killed at least 10 people at a campaign office in Pakistan’s restive tribal belt as Pakistani political parties held their final election campaign rallies Saturday ahead of crucial parliamentary elections. “All the candidates will wind up their election campaigns by midnight and no public rallies or meetings will be allowed until the day-long polling concludes Monday evening,” Kunwar Dilshad, secretary of the Election Commission of Pakistan, told DPA.

Pakistan’s three major parties - Pakistan Muslim League-Qaid-e-Azam (PML-Q), which was ruling until recently, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of the assassinated former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto - held public rallies in nearly every major city in the country.

Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, met with officials from his PPP in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, which has become a major battleground as it holds 148 of the 272 directly-elected seats in the National Assembly.

Despite the murder of Bhutto at a campaign rally Dec 27, the PPP was predicted to sweep its traditional stronghold of Sindh, the second-largest of Pakistan’s four provinces.

With Sindh in hand, the PPP is focusing on Punjab, where embattled President Pervez Musharraf’s main political backers PML-Q and his bitter rival Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N also have a strong following.

But political workers and the public have in general shown less enthusiasm for this campaign, mainly due to Bhutto’s death and a series of other suicide attacks that have killed around 1,000 people, including dozens at election rallies, in the past year.

Saturday afternoon, a suicide car bomber killed at least 10 people after targeting the office of an independent election candidate in the tribal district of Parachinar, according to a local medical official.

Earlier Saturday, suspected pro-Taliban militants blew up eight booths at a polling station in the tribal district of Bajaur. More than a dozen time-devices were used to destroy the polling station set up in a jail currently under construction.

“No one was injured in the incident,” local official Mohammed Jamil said, adding that the polling booths would be reconstructed.

In the southeast city of Hyderabad, the police arrested a gang of men who they said were planning suicide attacks in the city on polling day Monday. Explosives, suicide jackets and weapons were recovered from suspects, district police officer Imran Shaukat said.

With around 80 million voters eligible to cast ballots for national and local parliaments, the government has deployed 81,000 soldiers in addition to provincial police forces, all of whom have been given shoot-on-sight orders against agitators.

However, the army was only on standby and would not mobilize unless there was serious election-related violence, the English-language News daily cited chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas as saying.

The military deployment followed threats by opposition parties to launch mass street protests, if the elections were rigged in favour of Musharraf’s political backers. But the embattled president has threatened to put down any post-poll protests with force.

Two main opposition leaders, Zardari and Sharif, met in Lahore Saturday to devise a joint strategy for the protest if the elections are rigged, a PML-N official said.

According to independent opinion surveys, the ruling PML-Q is lagging far behind with only 14 percent support among voters, while the PPP was polling at nearly 50 percent, and Nawaz’s PML-N was second with 22 percent.

On Friday, the US-based Human Rights Watch released an audio recording of Attorney-General Malik Mohammed Qayyum, a close aide of Musharraf, in which he allegedly talked about plans to rig the elections.

In the recording, Qayyum allegedly stated that Monday’s elections would be “massively rigged,” the group claimed in a statement. Qayyum denied the claims, saying the recording was faked as part of a conspiracy against him.

The prospect of rigging has raised concerns among the international community, which has dispatched hundreds of election monitors to the country.

An influential US lawmaker and a member of the US election monitoring team, Senator Joseph Biden, said Friday he would recommend that the US Congress cut Pakistan’s military aid, if the elections were rigged. Biden heads the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Analysts believe that Monday’s vote could determine the political survival of Musharraf, whose popularity is at its lowest since he seized power in a bloodless military coup in 1999, as a hostile incoming civilian government could move to impeach him.

Musharraf is a key ally of the US in its global war on terrorism.

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