Pakistan’s president today vowed that crucial parliamentary elections would go ahead tomorrow as planned despite a massive suicide car bombing at a campaign rally that killed up to 46 people – many of them supporters of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
The army, meanwhile, imposed a curfew in the northwestern tribal area town of Parachinar, where the bomber struck last night at the end of a rally for an independent candidate. Cars were banned from the roads and residents told to stay indoors.
There were conflicting reports of death tolls, with mangled bodies lying in pools of blood as frantic rescuers scrambled to ferry scores of critically wounded to the hospital. Parachinar security official Mushtaq Hussain put the number at 46.
The blast confirmed fears that Islamic extremists would try to sabotage the elections, considered crucial to restoring democracy following eight years of military rule, by targeting secular candidates such as those from Bhutto’s opposition party. Many also feared the government might delay the polls, using violence as a pretext.
But President Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, told the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan that the election would go ahead as planned, saying “any effort to derail the democratic process or the holding of elections will be foiled”.
The retired army general faces rising public anger following decisions late last year to declare emergency rule, purge the judiciary and impose media restrictions – some of which are still in place.
That has “prevented Pakistani journalists from working as they should, especially ahead of elections,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, noting that a ban remains on publishing or broadcasting reports that defame the head of state, members of the armed forces or government institutions.
“Musharraf’s restrictions on the media undermine the chances that Pakistan will have free and fair elections this week,” he said.
Musharraf, a key ally in the US war on terror, also faces a rise Islamic extremism, especially in the country’s volatile northwest.
A string of deadly suicide bombings – including the December 27 assassination of Bhutto – have left hundreds dead and discouraged many candidates from holding large rallies. Voters also said they might stay at home tomorrow.
Most of the victims in last night’s attack appeared to be members of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party. They had gathered after the rally at the home of Syed Riaz Hussain, an independent candidate endorsed by the PPP, said Mushtaq Hussain, an administrative official in the Kurram area.
The targeted candidate said 40 people were killed and more than 110 hurt.
Funerals would be held for many of the victims today, he said, and the army agreed to relax its curfew in some areas so family members could attend.
Recent opinion surveys show the opposition poised for a landslide election victory. Although Musharraf was not up for re-election, the retired army general could face impeachment if the opposition wins a two-thirds majority in the legislature, as many predict.
His critics were worried he would rig the vote, but Musharraf insisted yesterday the elections would be free, fair, peaceful and will usher in a stable government.
“With the stable, democratically elected government we will ensure a successful fight against terrorism and extremism,” he said in a speech broadcast on state-run Pakistan Television.
The government has deployed 81,000 soldiers to back up 392,000 police assigned to protect voters, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army’s top spokesman, said over the weekend.
The suicide blast came a day after police announced they had seized bomb-making materials and arrested 10 suspected Taliban-linked militants in the southern city of Karachi, where some 150 people died in an October suicide attack that narrowly missed Bhutto.
Yesterday police also arrested a man found with a suicide vest in Hyderabad, a city about 100 miles north of Karachi, said regional police chief Shaukat Shah.