Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said Sunday she would use economic as well as military means to defuse Pakistan's pro-Taliban insurgency, warning "foreign forces" could invade unless the government curbs spreading militancy.
She was speaking to journalists in Pakistan's troubled northwest, where this weekend she launched her campaign for Jan. 8 parliamentary elections - ahead of key talks slated for Monday with another opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, who is urging a boycott of the vote.
Bhutto also raised the specter of militants moving on Islamabad and gaining control of a key nuclear installation - widely seen as an unlikely scenario. While playing on fears of a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty, her remarks also reflected her willingness to sustain Pakistan's unpopular military operations against al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in its lawless tribal regions.
That fight has been spearheaded by key U.S. ally President Pervez Musharraf, to tackle militants that fled Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. But the jihadists have regrouped and expanded, posing a growing threat to Pakistan's own security.
"If Pakistan has no control in the tribal areas then tomorrow foreign forces can come there," Bhutto said in Peshawar, a stronghold of religious parties. It was an apparent reference to U.S. and NATO forces operating on the Afghan side of the border.
Bhutto also said economic development was crucial to defusing the pro-Taliban insurgency in the impoverished north, where Pakistani soldiers have clashed with insurgents in areas that now include the Swat valley, a former tourist attraction 100 miles from the capital, Islamabad.
Security forces have killed some 220 fighters in Swat over at least the past 10 days, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad said. The army also reported arresting 26 suspected militants on Sunday.
"We will use the military in the tribal areas, but we disagree that a military operation is the only solution to the problem," Bhutto said. "The people of tribal areas are our own people. We want to bring them into the modern age by giving them progress and prosperity."
The government, promised $750 million in U.S. aid, says it has that same strategy and claims to be already promoting road-building and development projects in the tribal regions, regarded as the likely hiding place of key al-Qaida leaders like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri.
But its inconsistent tactics, which in the past two years have swung from heavy-handed military action to failed efforts to make peace with pro-Taliban forces, have only served to alienate local tribesmen.
Bhutto, a Musharraf rival who shares his liberal and pro-Western outlook, has drawn flak in Pakistan for comments made before her return from exile, when she said she would cooperate with the American military in targeting bin Laden if Pakistan could not do the job alone.
That kind of talk has put her - like Musharraf - in the cross-hairs of Islamic militants. Suicide bombers struck at her October homecoming parade in the southern city of Karachi killing more than 140 people.
She warned Sunday against allowing the insurgency to spread.
"Whatever is happening in Swat and the tribal area today, that can come to Islamabad tomorrow. And will the world look on as spectators ... (if) Kahuta falls into their hands?" Bhutto said, referring to the site of Pakistan's main nuclear installation, located just east of the capital.
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry on Sunday issued a statement in response to a British newspaper report on the safety of its nuclear weapons, saying there was no danger of them "falling in wrong hands."
Bhutto's presence in Peshawar, soon after unveiling her party's election manifesto, prompted a massive security operation involving hundreds of police and private guards. She urged indigenous ethnic Pashtuns to forsake militancy and support her secular Pakistan People's Party.
Other opposition parties have threatened to boycott the ballot unless Musharraf reinstates about a dozen Supreme Court judges he fired after declaring emergency rule Nov. 3. The opposition parties say free and fair elections are impossible without an independent judiciary and election commission.
A boycott would be a serious blow to U.S.-backed efforts to return Pakistan to democracy after eight years of military rule. Musharraf has said emergency rule will end Dec. 16 - as demanded by Washington and the opposition.
Bhutto and another former premier Sharif plan to meet Monday in Islamabad to discuss the election boycott issue. She has said she will only boycott the vote if all opposition parties do the same.
On Sunday, Sharif, who returned last week from seven years of overseas exile, led rallies of thousands of supporters in the eastern city of Lahore, his political stronghold, and in the nearby town of Phoolnagar. Sharif denounced Musharraf, accusing him of blindly following Washington's dictates, and of "crushing" Pakistan's Supreme Court because he feared it would scupper his plans to prolong his rule.
"Today Pakistan is in danger," Sharif told supporters of his Pakistan Muslim League-N party. "One individual is out to destroy the country for the sake of his lust for power."
Musharraf overthrew then-Prime Minister Sharif in a 1999 bloodless coup. He was elected for another five-year term as head of state in October. On Wednesday he stepped down as military chief and retired from the army. ( AP )