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Free Pakistan polls urged

Singapore, December 28, 2007

World leaders urged Pakistan not to be deflected from a course toward democracy by the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, calling for free and fair national elections.

Bhutto’s killing after an election rally in the city of Rawalpindi on Thursday triggered a wave of violence in her native Sindh province, and stoked fears a Jan. 8 election meant to return Pakistan to civilian-led democracy would be put off.

But political leaders said Pakistan must not play into the hands of those who carried out the killing of Bhutto, who returned from eight years in exile earlier this year to take part in elections.

“The extremists behind this attack cannot be allowed to succeed,” Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in a statement.

“I urge all parties in Pakistan to act with restraint and to work for a return to a peaceful democratic process. It is my hope that a democratic Pakistan will be Benazir Bhutto’s legacy.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said the best tribute that could be paid to Bhutto would be holding free and fair elections.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who lifted emergency rule earlier this month following his reelection, has condemned the assassination, and called for calm in a televised address to the nation.

But he made no mention of the election that is seen a key step towards stability in the nuclear-armed nation, racked by violence.

“My hope is that the election process will go forward and the leadership in Pakistan will realise the attack on her is an attack on the election process and realise that that slowing it down or changing the course will only play into the hands of the people who did this,” said former US ambassador to Pakistan Nicholas Platt.

“I’m not going to second-guess the leadership but my personal hope is that they will stick to the schedule. A lot depends on what happens in the streets in the days to come.”

Thousands of people angered by Bhutto’s killings had poured into Pakistan’s streets overnight, especially in Karachi, the capital of her home province of Sind, setting fire to banks, a government office and a post office.

The protests had since quietened down, but authorities were on alert for further trouble on Friday as her body was flown to her family village for burial, expected later in the day.

“This act of terror is an attempt to destroy by violence Pakistan’s ongoing efforts to firmly establish democracy through a fair election. It is an extremely depicable and impermissible act, and our nation strongly condemns it,” Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said in a statement on Friday.

“We hope from the bottom of our hearts that Pakistan will overcome this tragedy and continue to pursue the fight against terrorism and efforts to establish democracy.”

Bhutto was shot at as she left the rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi waving to supporters from her bullet-proof vehicle, police and witnesses said. The attacker then blew himself up.

Security experts said it was too early to identify a clear suspect in the assassination, though Al Qaeda is one of the prime suspects among a number of extremist groups operating in Pakistan.

A private analyst said Al Qaeda supporters in Pakistan’s security services may have also played a role but it was unlikely Musharraf was himself involved.

US President George W Bush led calls for Pakistan to hunt down the killers of Bhutto, who survived a suicide bombing in October in which 140 people were killed as she paraded through Karachi upon her return from exile.

“Those who committed this crime must be brought to justice,” Bush told reporters on the outskirts of his Texas ranch.

The Philippines condemned the attack, saying such acts of violence had no place in a civilised society.

“We trust that the Pakistani authorities will exert all effort to<


Tags: Pakistan | Benazir Bhutto |

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