Pakistan on election alert after suicide carnage

( AFP )- Pakistani security forces were on their highest state of alert Sunday, the day before critical parliamentary polls, after a suicide car bomber killed 46 people and wounded nearly 100 at an election rally.

The government stepped up security for Monday's polls after the final day of campaigning was marred by the deadliest attack since the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto late last year.

"There are now 46 people dead, and about 50 critically wounded who are being evacuated to Peshawar," said Fida Mohammad Khan, senior local administration official in the northwestern tribal town of Parachinar, bordering Afghanistan.

A security official told AFP there had been initial confusion about the number of dead because bodies were so badly damaged in the Saturday attack.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan has seen a wave of suicide attacks since Bhutto was killed in a suicide and gun attack at a political rally in Rawalpindi, casting doubt over the authority of key US ally President Pervez Musharraf.

But officials pledged Sunday that voting will be peaceful and fair.

"This time, the process is completely transparent and there is no possibility of any wrongdoing or rigging," said Kanwar Dilshad, secretary of the election commission.

"Everything has been put in place to make these elections the most transparent and fair in the history of Pakistan."

Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier Javed Cheema told AFP that attempts to disrupt the polls will fail.

"Polling stations will be fully secured, the security of the voters will be ensured at all costs," Cheema told AFP.

"We know there are elements who are trying to sabotage the entire process but we will defeat their designs -- we are determined to do so."

Saturday's blast occurred at a rally for Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party.

Hours later, a second suicide car bomber attacked an army media centre in the northwestern region of Swat, killing two civilians and wounding eight other people.

Saturday's attacks came as politicians launched a final push for votes before the midnight deadline, after which all rallies are banned until the polls close.

Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, met former premier Nawaz Sharif in Lahore on Saturday for new talks on possible power-sharing after the vote if the opposition wins a majority, party officials said.

Monday's poll has been overshadowed by violence and dogged by widespread allegations of rigging in favour of Musharraf's allies.

Musharraf, who sacked several key judges last year to pave the way for a second presidential term, faces impeachment if the opposition wins more than two-thirds of parliament.

The White House, which counts Musharraf as a bulwark against Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants, called for people to make their views known through the ballot, not the bomb.

"We want to see an election in which all the parties can compete fairly. Violence is not the answer and we know this latest attack will not stop the people of Pakistan from voting," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

The Interior Ministry's Cheema said more than 500,000 security and police personnel are being deployed to guard polling stations and provide security.

A resident of Parachinar, Khalil Shah, said Sunday that gunfire was continuing in the town after Saturday's blast. Some areas were very tense, especially where Sunni and Shiite communities live together, he said.

Two Pakistani Red Cross employees kidnapped two weeks ago in Pakistan have meanwhile been freed without a ransom being paid, the organisation said in Geneva on Saturday.

They were on a routine mission to Torkham, a border town with Afghanistan, when they were seized on February 2 by an unidentified group.

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