Pakistan Deploys 80,000 Soldiers to Ensure Election Security
By Ed Johnson

(Bloomberg) — President Pervez Musharraf’s government deployed more than 80,000 soldiers and police to provide security for next week’s parliamentary elections and said the ballot would be free and fair.

Ninety-five army battalions have been sent to “sensitive” parts of the South Asian nation to maintain law and order, said Major General Athar Abbas, director-general of public relations for the armed forces.

“The army will not interfere or have any role in the conduct of the election, which is the sole responsibility of the Election Commission,” the official Associated Press of Pakistan cited Abbas as saying yesterday.

Election campaigning has been marred by terrorist attacks, including the Dec. 27 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Opposition parties say the Feb. 18 ballot won’t be fair under Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup in 1999, and imposed a state of emergency last November in the face of months of demonstrations against his rule.

The opposition will win the elections to the 342-member Parliament and the four provincial assemblies, the Washington- based International Republican Institute predicted this week.

About 80 million people in the nation of more than 160 million are registered to vote, APP reported. About 430,000 transparent ballot boxes have been imported from China for use at more than 64,000 polling stations.

International Observers
More than 500 international observers have already arrived in the country to monitor the vote, according to the report.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Congress this week she believes Pakistan’s leaders understand they must hold an election “that inspires confidence in the Pakistani people that this is a step forward for democracy.”

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday that candidates should be allowed access to the press and the freedom to express their views and assemble peacefully.

“The Pakistani people should have a reasonable degree of assurance that their ballot will, in fact, be reflected in the results,” McCormack said. “One would hope that they can improve upon past performance.”

The U.S., which has pumped $10 billion into Pakistan since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with the aim of securing the country against al-Qaeda, is depending on the vote to further a transition to civilian government from Musharraf’s previous military rule.

Control Extremists
U.S. intelligence agencies are critical of Musharraf’s efforts to control extremists and say al-Qaeda has established bases in the tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

The number of people killed in terrorist attacks and sectarian violence in Pakistan more than doubled last year to 2,116 from 967 in 2006, the Interior Ministry in Islamabad says.

Musharraf said this week that violence during the elections won’t be tolerated and voters must avoid raising tensions by alleging ballots were rigged.

“Do not test the resolve of the government,” Musharraf said in Islamabad. “No agitation, anarchy or chaos can be acceptable.”

Musharraf, 64, started a second five-year term as president in November after stepping aside as head of the army. He is backed by the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam party.

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