4 killed at Pakistan political rally

( AP ) - Government party supporters clashed with backers of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif near the Pakistani capital Thursday, killing four people in the worst violence so far in the campaign for Jan. 8 elections.

Former Prime Minister Sharif was about a mile away when the pro-government supporters opened fire on people gathering for a rally near the airport about 10 miles outside of Islamabad, said Sadiq ul-Farooq, a spokesman for Sharif's party.

"Nawaz Sharif and his procession are safe, but we have received reports that a few people were wounded and maybe a few suffered fatal injuries," ul-Farooq said. All the wounded were from Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N group.

Local police chief Mohammed Hussain confirmed that four people were killed and three were wounded in the fighting.

Imtiaz Ranjha, a spokesman or the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party, condemned the attack and accused Sharif's supporters of provoking the fight. The party called for those involved to be punished, he said.

Police were trying to determine who initiated the attack.

The violence came as the campaign for the parliamentary elections gathered momentum after eight years of military rule under recently retired army chief President Pervez Musharraf. Opposition leaders are already claiming the election will be rigged against them, which authorities deny.

In the garrison city of Rawalpindi, just a few miles from the shootout, hundreds of riot police manned security checkpoints as Benazir Bhutto prepared to hold her first campaign rally there since she came back to Pakistan two months ago.

Bhutto, who like Sharif recently returned from exile, had planned an earlier rally in the city, but Musharraf forced her to cancel it, citing security fears. In October, suicide bombers struck a parade celebrating Bhutto's return from exile, killing more than 140 people in the southern city of Karachi.

On Thursday, hundreds of people were forced to pass through metal detectors and undergo body searches before entering a sprawling public park decorated with the red, black and green flags of Bhutto's opposition party and massive portraits of her with election candidates.

In recent weeks, suicide bombers have repeatedly targeted security forces in Rawalpindi, a city near the capital where Musharraf stays and the Pakistan army has its headquarters.

Mohammed Sohail Mang, 50, who runs a small kiosk, said he was unhappy with Musharraf, the former army chief who seized power in a 1999 coup, but he was unhappy with the opponents as well.

"It's very hard for me to vote this time. When they do not do anything for us, why should we leave our businesses and stand in lines (to vote)?" he said.

Before the rally, scheduled for Thursday afternoon, Bhutto met with visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the end of his two-day visit here and told him that if she is elected prime minister she will work with him to fight terror.

"We, too, believe that it is essential for both of our countries, and indeed the larger Muslim world, to work to protect the interest of Islamic civilization by eliminating extremism and terrorism," she said after their meeting.

Karzai and Musharraf met Wednesday and agreed to share intelligence and tighten border controls to quash militant attacks that the Afghan leader said have been decreasing inside Afghanistan but rising in Pakistan.

In the worst recent attack, a suicide bombing during a prayer service at a mosque in the volatile northwest of Pakistan last Friday narrowly missed the former interior minister and killed 56 other people.

"People from both the countries are suffering under the hands of extremism and terrorism," Musharraf said at a joint news conference with Karzai.

The two leaders have often bickered over allegations that Taliban and al-Qaida fighters launch attacks inside Afghanistan from Pakistani soil. They have held reconciliatory meetings in the past with few results. When asked what was different now, Karzai said the atmosphere in the meeting was better and both sides agreed on the root cause of the violence.

"Since we are agreed on what is the problem and how to stop it, there are more chances of success," he said.

Meanwhile, a doctor and residents reported that sectarian clashes between Sunni and Shiite Muslims this week in remote northwestern region of Kurram have left at least 21 dead and 120 wounded.

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