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Pakistan Reacts Sharply to Rice Comments

Pakistan has reacted sharply to comments U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made about coming elections, saying the country does not need advice on its democratic process from outsiders.

Senior Cabinet minister Tariq Azeem tells VOA that Pakistan is committed to holding free and fair elections in 2007, but says it does not need outside advice on the democratic process.

He was referring to comments made by Secretary Rice after her meeting with Pakistani leaders earlier this week, when she said the world expects democratic, free and fair elections in Pakistan in 2007.

Minister Azeem says such statements amount to interference in the country's internal affairs and could undermine bilateral relations.

"The elections will happen in 2007," he said. "They will be transparent. They will be free and fair elections. We have got an excellent relationship with the United States but when other people come and tell us what to do, it does hurt us sometimes."

Pakistani officials say Secretary Rice did not discuss elections when she met with President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad. But in her news conference afterwards, the top U.S diplomat reiterated the importance the international community attaches to the process of free and fair elections next year.

"The expectation is that Pakistan is going to take that step on the road to democracy, that it is not just a matter of election day, it is a matter of access to press, it is a matter of access to be able to assemble and to campaign. We have been very clear about all of that," Rice said.

President Musharraf is a close U.S. ally in the war against terrorism, and bilateral relations have improved in recent years. The Pakistani leader seized power in a bloodless military coup in 1999, and has held national and regional elections since then to return Pakistan to democratic rule.

Parliament, which is dominated by pro-Musharraf lawmakers, has approved his democratic reforms, and allowed him to remain president as well as chief of Pakistan's powerful military until the end of 2007.

The parliamentary elections for the national and four provincial assemblies are due next year, when President Musharraf's five-year term also expires. But the leaders of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League have given strong indications in recent days that the existing parliament will re-elect Musharraf for another five-year term before the next elections. These statements have outraged opposition parties and constitutional experts in Pakistan, who are warning that such a move will block efforts to hold free and fair elections next year. The opposition parties are currently negotiating on broadening the anti-Musharraf alliance to force the military ruler to step down before the next polls.