Pakistan election campaign ends with 40 dead in bombing

Other News Materials 16 February 2008 21:23 (UTC +04:00)

( dpa ) - A suicide bomber killed at least 40 people at a campaign office in Pakistan's restive tribal belt as Pakistani political parties held their final rallies Saturday ahead of next week's crucial parliamentary elections, officials said.

The attack occurred at the office of independent candidate Riaz Hussain Shah, who is supported by the slain ex-premier Benazir Bhutto's party, in the tribal district of Parachinar, near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

"Forty people were killed and 97 injured in the bombing," said Fida Mohammed, Assistant Political Agent, an official who administers the government office in the semi autonomous tribal district.

Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema confirmed 37 deaths. The attacker detonated an explosives-laden vehicle as it approached Shah's supporters outside the office.

Pakistan has been rocked by dozens of suicide bombings in the past year killing more than 1,000 people, including four in the past week in the restive North-West Frontier Province, which includes the tribal belt and where Taliban and al-Qaeda militants are active.

Parachinar also has a history of sectarian violence between Sunni and minority Shiite tribesmen, including clashes late last year that killed more than 350.

Separately, suspected pro-Taliban militants blew up eight booths at a polling station in the tribal district of Bajaur in a pre-dawn attack Saturday.

The violence came as the political candidates completed their final day of campaigning ahead of Monday's elections, which are meant to bring a return of civilian government after eight years of military rule under embattled President Pervez Musharraf.

"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 on Monday evening," Kunwar Dilshad, secretary of the Election Commission of Pakistan, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

The three major parties held public rallies in nearly every major city in the country.

With around 80 million voters eligible to cast ballots for national and local parliaments, the government had deployed 81,000 Army 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 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.

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

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 allegedly stated that Monday's elections would be "massively rigged."

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 observers 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 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 terror.