Pakistan awaits new election date after Bhutto killing

( AFP ) - Pakistan election officials were Wednesday poised to announce the date of crucial polls, thrown into chaos in the wake of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto's assassination.

A few hours later President Pervez Musharraf is to address the nation for the first time since her slaying at a campaign rally last week, which set off days of unrest and calls for an international investigation.

Despite calls from the new leadership of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and another former premier Nawaz Sharif for the vote to go ahead on January 8 as planned, the election commission said to do so would be "impossible".

A senior election official told AFP that because of the widespread unrest, the parliamentary polls will now take place in February with the exact date to be confirmed Wednesday after talks with the parties.

A wave of violence, arson and looting has left 58 dead and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage, including to dozens of election offices.

A furore over the cause of Bhutto's death has added to the turmoil in this nuclear-armed nation, which under Musharraf's rule has been a key US ally in the fight against Islamic extremism.

Both the PPP and the party headed by Sharif, like Bhutto a two-time former prime minister, want early polls but seem set to be disappointed.

"It looks impossible to hold elections on January 8," election commission spokesman Kanwar Dilshad said.

The loss of voter lists and the shaky security situation has also delayed preparations for the election, seen as the next step in restoring Pakistan to civilian-run democracy after Musharraf quit the army in late November, eight years after seizing power in a coup.

Dilshad said discussions on a new date had taken into account Moharram, one of the most sacred months in the Islamic calendar, which in Pakistan runs from around January 10 to February 8 this year.

Meanwhile, the interior ministry called a press conference Tuesday to deny local reports that officials had apologised for its spokesman's assertion that Bhutto died from smashing her head on her car sunroof in the gun and suicide bomb attack.

It said there had been no apology but a request "to overlook the tone and style of the spokesman, which may not have been received well."

"There is no intention to conceal anything from the people of Pakistan," a ministry statement said.

The ministry spokesman had said an alleged Al-Qaeda figure was behind the attack but that no bullet or shrapnel was found in her, and that the lever of the sunroof had fractured her skull.

Pictures and television footage showing a man firing on Bhutto from close range cast doubt on the official version.

Bhutto aides who saw her body insist she was shot and have called for a UN probe, but government officials have dismissed those demands.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said there was little prospect of such a probe.

"An international commission is one thing, a UN commission is quite another -- because that pre-supposes the involvement of a third-party (country)," the minister told reporters at the start of a two-day visit here.

"Here, we can't say that with any certainty. As a consequence, unless UN rules were suddenly re-written, it would appear to me to be difficult."

According to Latif Khosa, a senior official in Bhutto's party, she had been due to go public with a dossier claiming intelligence and electoral officials were plotting to rig the polls in Musharraf's favour.

Bhutto was to unveil the dossier the night she died after first presenting it to two visiting US lawmakers, he said. "But that was not possible because she was murdered."

Bhutto has been succeeded by her 19-year-old son Bilawal as party chief.

However, the student at Britain's Oxford University is too young to sit in parliament and has left the country.

His father, Bhutto's husband Asif Ali Zardari, is in effective charge until Bilawal completes his studies.

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