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Bhutto Says Pakistan at a Crucial Point


Exiled former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto says she plans to return home, even without reaching a political deal with the country's military ruler. VOA Correspondent Gary Thomas reports the former leader blames what she calls extremist elements for the failure to reach agreement with President Pervez Musharraf.

Speaking in Washington Tuesday, Benazir Bhutto said Pakistan is at a critical juncture.

"When the history of my nation is written, I think we will look back to the fall of 2007 as a genuine turning point in Pakistan," she said. "It is a critical fork between democracy and dictatorship, and between moderation and extremism."

Ms. Bhutto says negotiations between her Pakistan People's Party, the PPP, and General Musharraf have stalled. She blamed the roadblocks on hard-liners with General Musharraf's party who, she says, do not want a return to civilian democratic rule in her country.

"General Musharraf has embarked on negotiations with the PPP on a transition to democracy," she said. "But the dialogue that we have held over so many months has stalled because extremist sympathizers in his party refuse to accept a democratic process. General Musharraf has not been able to deliver on commitments because of these extremist sympathizers in his party over whom he has little control."

The former prime minister also criticized the United States for supporting General Musharraf, just as it had supported three earlier military leaders of Pakistan.

"Three times the United States acted out of perceived self-interest to constrain communism," she said. "And today Islamabad enjoys the support of Washington because General Musharraf's military regime is viewed as vital asset in combating extremism and contributing to regional and global security."

General Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless military coup in 1999, is seeking another term in office in an October 6 election. The president of Pakistan is elected by an electoral college comprised of the national parliament and provincial assemblies.

Elections for new parliament and assemblies are to be held sometime after that, most likely in early 2008.

Ms. Bhutto's key demand is that General Musharraf be barred from holding the dual posts of army chief and president. She says he must resign his army post before contesting the election and that he lift the ban on a twice-elected prime minister from running for another term.

Ms. Bhutto was twice elected prime minister of Pakistan, but was never allowed to complete either term. Facing charges of corruption, she has lived abroad in London and Dubai, but plans to return home October 18. She says she does not know how the government will react and she prays for the best, but is prepared for the worst.

Earlier this month, the prime minister ousted by General Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif, tried to return home, but was promptly deported back to Saudi Arabia.

The former chief of South Asia analysis for State Department Intelligence, Walter Andersen, tells VOA General Musharraf must walk a delicate line, and that Ms. Bhutto is also in a difficult position.

"She is in a difficult position, too, because this whole set of circumstances has tended to give political leadership to Nawaz Sharif," he said. "She has to figure out some way to sort of get back the mantle of democratic leadership.

Ms. Bhutto says her party will meet October 3 in London to decide whether to boycott the presidential vote if General Musharraf does not meet their demands.

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