Pakistan govt rejects Bhutto's call for outside help

A senior government official on Monday rejected a call from Benazir Bhutto for foreign experts to help investigate the suicide attack on her homecoming procession.

Bhutto said on Sunday she wanted United States and British experts to assist in the probe into Thursday night’s bombing in Karachi, which killed 136 people, wounded hundreds more and left open the question of whether campaign rallies would be allowed ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections.

But Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said foreign experts would not be brought into the probe. “I would categorically reject this,” he told reporters. “We are conducting the investigation in a very objective manner.”

Bhutto, who escaped the blast because she had stepped into her armoured bus minutes before the bomb went off, has called for an independent inquiry, questioning why many streetlights were not working as her convoy inched its way through the darkness, and noting the chief investigator is a police officer who had been present as her husband was allegedly tortured while in custody on corruption charges in 1999.

“The inquiry should be led by Pakistan, but the government should call on foreign experts so that the killers ...
can be brought to justice without any doubts,” she told reporters on Monday in Karachi.

President General Pervez Musharraf has promised to conduct a thorough probe, and while police are questioning three people, they have yet to announce any breakthroughs.

The government has rejected Bhutto’s allegation that elements within the administration and security apparatus were trying to kill her. She claims they are remnants of the regime of former military leader General Zia-ul Haq, who oversaw the creation of mujahedin groups that fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Veterans of that fight later formed al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Rally ban

Pro-Taliban Islamists and a popular former prime minister, meanwhile, on Monday condemned a ban on campaign rallies proposed after the suicide bombing, calling it an attempt to rig elections.

Freewheeling political rallies have long formed the core of campaigning in this South Asian nation.

Sadiq ul-Farooq, a leader of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N party, claimed the proposal would prevent “popular opposition leaders from reaching their voters”.

Sherpao said the proposal would allow gatherings in specific, well-protected areas, but would ban large processions and rallies. Further violence, he indicated, could lead to a rescheduling of the vote.

“We do not want to postpone the elections and we do not want any sort of any excuse for that,” he said. “We want a peaceful, conducive atmosphere.”

Analysts warn that a curtailed campaign could hurt the elections’ credibility and fuel political turmoil in the nuclear-armed nation as it faces a surge in Islamic extremism.

There are growing signs that Musharraf and Bhutto are moving toward an alliance with a common mission to fight Islamic extremism, despite their long-time enmity.

That would leave Sharif, who was ousted when Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup, to lead an opposition likely to include religious parties bitterly opposed to Pakistan’s front-line role in the US-led war on terror.

Ameer ul-Azeem, spokesperson for the Mutahida Majls-e-Amal, a coalition of opposition religious parties, denounced Musharraf as a “dictator who calls himself a democrat”.

“Since Musharraf knows the ruling party is not able to organise any big rallies, he is now thinking of depriving opposition parties of their right to campaign,” ul-Azeem said.

While authorities allowed Bhutto to return, Sharif was immediately deported when he flew into Pakistan on September 10 from exile on a self-declared mission to force Musharraf from power.

Ul-Farooq insisted Sharif would try to return again within the next month. Sharif served two terms as prime minister in the 1990s and remains Pakistan’s most popular politician, according to a recent poll.

Bhutto said Sunday that while there should be no restrictions on political parties, each party would assess whether it was safe to go ahead with rallies.

The poll is drawing close scrutiny from Pakistan’s Western backers, who don’t want to be seen as propping up a military ruler.

The National Democratic Institute, a US group that lobbies for democratic reform around the world, called for all party leaders to be able to take part in the ballot—an apparent reference to Sharif—and for an end to interference by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, which has discredited many polls in the past.

Musharraf has pledged to quit his position as army chief and restore civilian rule if he secures another five-year presidential mandate.—Sapa-AP

Associated Press writers Tim Sullivan and Sadaqat Jan in Islamabad and Matthew Pennington in Karachi contributed to this report

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