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US Envoy Presses Pakistan on Open Elections

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher reaffirmed Washington's support for Pakistan's embattled President General Pervez Musharraf during a visit to Islamabad Thursday. The visit comes amid mounting concerns over Pakistan's political stability and Mr. Musharraf's future ahead of national elections expected later this year. VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports from Islamabad.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Richard Boucher underscored U.S. interest in the coming elections and democratic reform in Pakistan.

"We want to see a transition in Pakistan that leads to a government the people have voted for, that leads to a stable political situation that is a good solid base on which to deal with the problems of extremism," he said.

He said the United States would continue to help Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf organize free and fair elections.

Mr. Musharraf is seeking another five years in office, a move that has already provoked widespread opposition.

The U.S.-backed president seized power through a military coup in 1999. He continues to serve as both president and army chief, a dual role his opponents insist is unconstitutional and are vowing to challenge in court.

There are reports the United States is supporting a potential alliance between Mr. Musharraf and his main political rival, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

When asked about any possible U.S. involvement in a deal, Boucher insisted Washington is only interested in promoting open elections in Pakistan.

"We have supported that interest without favor, without leaning toward any particular party and that's what we will continue to do," he said.

This is Boucher's fourth trip to Pakistan this year. On some of those trips, he was accompanying Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as they visited Pakistan.

Pakistan is a key ally in the U.S.-led war against terror and has been since September 2001.

Boucher described the relationship as "fundamental and strategic" and said it continues to benefit both countries. But bilateral ties have come under increasing strain in recent months.

U.S. officials say Pakistan must do more to crack down on pro-Taleban and al-Qaida militants operating in Pakistan's tribal areas near Afghanistan.

American intelligence sources say extremists have established safe havens in those remote areas.

Several U.S. presidential candidates have suggested Washington should consider unilateral military strikes in the region if Pakistan fails to act.

But Boucher said official U.S. policy remains unchanged.

"We are partners, we act together. If either one of us had actionable intelligence on threats, we would work together… and beyond that I'm not going to speculate," he said.

Pakistan has deployed some 90,000 troops to the volatile border region. But the violence there has intensified in recent weeks with militants vowing to overthrow the government.