Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf says he will hold national elections in October next year to return the country to democratic rule.
Pakistan's military leader used an Independence Day speech to heads of newly elected local councils to outline what he called his road map to democracy. He says preparations for elections to the provincial assemblies and two houses of the parliament will begin next month.
General Musharraf says the elections will be held from October 1-11, 2002, and a transfer of power to the elected government will then take place. He gave no indication that he intends to give up his leadership position.
The military leader's statement follows the last of a series of local government elections across the country this year. General Musharraf says he expects the local elections to produce a new leadership to replace largely discredited politicians of the previous decades.
In his speech marking the country's 54th independence anniversary, General Musharraf underlined his belief that Pakistan's greatest problems are internal. "Our threat emanates from within," he said. "Our economic malaise coupled with intolerance, extremist attitudes in certain quarters, are the termites eating us from within. We must realize and understand that the time has now come to rededicate ourselves for achieving our objectives, the attainment of our rightful place in the world."
General Musharraf promises to reform the election commission and make constitutional changes that he says will introduce checks and balances into Pakistan's political system.
He seized power in a bloodless military coup in October 1999. After the coup, the country's Supreme Court gave its approval to the takeover, but told him to complete promised reforms and hold national elections within three years. It also gave the general the authority to change Pakistan's constitution.
Meanwhile, General Musharrf condemned religious and ethnic violence in Pakistan and banned two militant extremist groups Sunni-based Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Shiite Sipah-e-Mohammad.
The general also warned the country's main Shiite party Tehrik-e-Jafria Pakistan and Sunni group Sipah-e-Sahaba that they might also be banned if found to be involved in sectarian violence. "Let me assert firmly," he said, "that we shall not allow any organization to speak the language of violence and intolerance. I urge every Pakistani to join hands in the fight to overcome the menace of sectarian and ethnic extremism."
Tit for tat sectarian violence in Pakistan has claimed hundreds of lives in recent years. The Musharraf government has recently stepped up a drive against illegal weapons, and has vowed to make anti-terrorism laws more stringent to deal with the issue.