Pervez Musharraf to seek backing in Europe

Other News Materials 21 January 2008 05:57 (UTC +04:00)

( Reuters ) - Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf will seek support from the European Union and NATO on Monday at the start of a four-country trip to Europe where he is also expected to face tough questions over his rule.

Musharraf, whose popularity at home has slumped over recent months, leaves a country racked by militant attacks and on edge over prospects for a parliamentary election on February 18 that is meant to complete a transition to civilian rule.

Speaking to representatives of Belgium's Pakistani community on the eve of the formal part of his Brussels visit, Musharraf vowed on Sunday that the election would be democratic, and said the goal of his trip was "correcting perspectives" in Europe.

"There will be free and transparent elections," he pledged at the meeting in a Brussels hotel, lauding what he said were improvements in the economy and security under his rule.

Fears for nuclear-armed Pakistan's stability were aggravated sharply by the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in a bomb and gun attack on December 27.

A surge of attacks by al Qaeda-linked militants based on the Afghan border has raised concern about prospects for the country and its efforts to support NATO and U.S. forces struggling to subdue Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

On Sunday, Pakistan villagers said army helicopter gunships launched strikes in the remote South Waziristan tribal region regarded as a stronghold of a Taliban commander linked with the assassination of Bhutto.

Ahead of the trip, former foreign secretary Tanvir Ahmed Khan said he expected Musharraf to seek to impress on Europeans that he was Pakistan's best hope of stability.

"He's trying to establish his credentials with the key Western powers with the same old message: that he's indispensable, they don't have a better friend than him, without him the war on terror would unravel and Pakistan's economic progress would collapse," Khan said.

Musharraf will meet Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in Brussels.

He will go on to Paris to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy and then attend the World Economic Forum in Switzerland before talks in London with Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

While Musharraf may get the backing he seeks from European leaders, the former army chief who seized power in a 1999 coup can also expect them to tell him that he must do more to promote democracy and curb the activity of militants.

On Saturday Spanish police arrested 14 South Asians, among them 12 Pakistanis, on suspicion they may have been plotting attacks in Barcelona. The arrests came after police found explosives and other equipment during raids at five addresses.

Asked to comment on the developments in Spain, which suffered Europe's deadliest Islamist attack in March 2004 when 191 were killed in train bombings. Musharraf said:

"This is not good for Pakistan, this is not good for Islam."