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Pakistan Deploys Troops Prior to Elections


Tens of thousands of troops are fanning out across Pakistan in an effort to improve security before next week's parliamentary elections. VOA Correspondent Meredith Buel reports from Islamabad that security forces are also searching for Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan, who disappeared while traveling by road through a volatile tribal region.

Interior Ministry spokesman Jawed Iqbal Cheema says Pakistani troops are mobilizing and moving nationwide to provide security during the election. Cheema says the soldiers will not be stationed at the more than 64,000 polling stations across Pakistan.

He says local police will provide front-line security for voters on Election Day, February 18.

"All these arrangements have been made to insure that people cast their vote without any fear in an environment of peace and order," he said. "Nobody will be allowed to disrupt the polling process or create any law and order situation. Anyone trying to hinder the process shall be dealt with very sternly."

The security situation in Pakistan has deteriorated significantly in recent months, with militants linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida carrying out suicide bombings against security forces and politicians.

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed in a shooting and suicide bomb attack last December while leaving a campaign rally.

There have been repeated suicide attacks since then, killing hundreds of people and raising fears the election will be marred by bloodshed.

There are also concerns of a major outbreak of political violence if there are allegations of serious vote rigging by the government of President Pervez Musharraf.

Interior Ministry spokesman Jawed Iqbal Cheema says more than 1,000 international observers and journalists are coming to Pakistan for the election.

"The government has made elaborate arrangements to facilitate the international observers and the media men to discharge their duties in a free manner without any hindrance," Cheema said. "They are free to visit any area of their own choice, and the government will provide them with the requisite security."

As troops deployed throughout Pakistan, authorities continued the search for the country's ambassador to Afghanistan.

Tariq Azizuddin disappeared Monday in a tribal area plagued by bandits and militants.

The ambassador was on his way from the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar to the Afghan capital, Kabul, when he vanished in Pakistan's Khyber tribal district.

Pakistani authorities are reluctant to say if the diplomat has been kidnapped.

Officials are refusing to comment on local news reports that militants have offered to release the envoy in exchange for Taliban commander, Mullah Mansoor Dadullah, who was caught Monday by Pakistani paramilitary forces.

Meanwhile, Pakistani police say two technicians from the country's Atomic Energy Commission have been kidnapped near the northwestern town of Dera Isamail Khan.

Police say the men were conducting a geological survey when they and their driver were abducted at gunpoint.

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