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Visiting US Official Voices Support for Pakistan and President Musharraf

A senior U.S. official in Pakistan provided the strongest indication yet that Washington will stand by embattled Pakistan leader Pervez Musharraf. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, in Pakistan for a two-day visit, emphasized Washington's commitment to a long-term Pakistan - U.S. alliance. VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports from Islamabad.

The visit comes as President Musharraf faces mounting political opposition at home over his controversial decision to fire the country's top judge last March.

The political crisis continues to heat up ahead of national elections expected later this year.

Deputy Secretary of State Negroponte met Mr. Musharraf Saturday, the same day the ousted judge led a massive protest rally in the central city of Faisalabad.

There was widespread speculation that Mr. Negroponte would be delivering a tough message from Washington demanding a firm commitment to democratic reforms inside Pakistan.

However, speaking to reporters following the meeting, Mr. Negroponte reiterated Washington's continued support for President Musharraf's government.

"As far as the message that I brought, it is one of strong friendship and trust," he said. "We believe that we have an excellent partnership together in facing the various challenges that confront us."

He said the central challenge remains the war against terrorism, where Pakistan, and General Musharraf, are key U.S. allies.

Under Musharraf, Pakistan's military has deployed some 80,000 troops to help secure the rugged tribal areas along the Afghan border, where Taleban and al-Qaida militants are believed to operate.

President Musharraf has come under fire, both at home and abroad, for his refusal to give up his dual role as both president and head of Pakistan's powerful military.

Mr. Negroponte did repeat calls Saturday for "free, fair and transparent" elections later this year. But on the central issue of issue of President's Musharraf's military uniform, Mr. Negroponte declined comment.

"This is a matter that is up to him ,and I am sure that he's going to make that decision based on all the considerations that he considers relevant to the situation as he sees it," he added.

Under the Pakistan constitution, President Musharraf would be obliged to quit the army before seeking reelection. Opposition leaders are demanding that he give up his military post sooner rather than later.

The president is also pushing the country's sitting national assembly to reelect him to another five-year term before it is dissolved in November ahead national elections.

Musharraf's political opposition is expected to dominate those elections and gain a significant majority in the national assembly.