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Pakistan's Bhutto Pessimistic on Chances for Free Elections


Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto says the recently-concluded visit of a top U.S. envoy played a critical role in securing her release from house arrest, but adds that more steps need to be taken if Pakistan is to hold free and fair elections, as the country's military ruler has pledged. From Washington, VOA's Michael Bowman reports.

Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto says it is no coincidence that she regained freedom of movement within Pakistan shortly before the arrival of Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who pressed for an end to emergency rule in the South Asian nation.

"I believe that my release, as well as the release of other political prisoners, was meant to coincide with his [Negoponte's] arrival, to send a positive signal to Washington that some of the leaders had been freed," said Benazir Bhutto. "But I am afraid there are still several thousand behind bars."

The former Pakistani prime minister spoke by telephone on the U.S. television program, CNN's Late Edition.

During his visit, Negroponte stressed that emergency rule in Pakistan is not compatible with holding credible democratic elections. He reiterated President Bush's call that President Pervez Musharraf free those arrested since the country's constitution was suspended, and end a clampdown on freedom of the press. For his part, General Musharraf has said he remains committed to holding elections and keeping his nation on a path to democracy. But, citing security threats to his nation, he has cast doubt on the prospects for a quick return to constitutional rule.

Benazir Bhutto says only time will tell if President Musharraf listened to Deputy Secretary Negroponte. But she adds, even if the general complies with all of the Bush administration's wishes, there is no guarantee that elections in Pakistan, scheduled for January, will be free and fair.

"A fair election does not just happen because one says that one wants a fair election," she said. "We have to see proof of that. We have to see whether our election commission is reconstituted, whether the present caretaker government is reshuffled, whether the mayors who control the guns and the funds and influence elections at the local level are suspended for the duration of the election period. And I would also like to see him [Musharraf] send a powerful message to the militants that they cannot get away with terrorist attacks on anyone, leave alone [including] political leaders."

Meanwhile, the Pakistani crisis has become an issue in America's presidential campaign. At a recent debate of opposition Democratic Party contenders, former Senator John Edwards said the United States should adopt what he called a "smarter path" for dealing with General Musharraf.

"First of all, I think we should reform the nature of our aid [to Pakistan] and use aid as our leverage tool," said John Edwards. "I mean, what we [the United States] have been doing is essentially aiding Musharraf, as opposed to aiding the Pakistani people."

President Bush has ordered that all forms of U.S. assistance to Pakistan be reviewed in light of General Musharraf's actions, but stressed that a significant portion of U.S. aid goes to fighting terrorism, a fight he says must continue.

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