PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AFP)- Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto took her election campaign to the heartland of Pakistan’s militants, whose wave of violence has threatened to destablise the nuclear-armed nation.
With just two weeks to go before the January 8 polls for parliament, which militants have vowed to disrupt, the two-time former premier again lashed out at President Pervez Musharraf over his handling of the bloodshed.
A suicide bombing last week killed 56 people, while an attack on her homecoming from years of exile in October left 139 dead — the worst suicide attack in the country’s history.
“Terrorists are killing innocent people. They are killing innocent children, men and women indiscriminately,” she told a small rally outside Islamabad before heading to North West Frontier Province, a militant stronghold.
Bhutto, who was the first female prime minister in the Muslim world, has repeatedly vowed to quash Islamist violence in her recent campaign appearances.
Security was extremely tight when she arrived in the provincial capital of Peshawar, where around 5,000 people had gathered in a cricket stadium to hear her address. Police and paramilitary soldiers were heavily deployed.
Pakistan has seen more than 40 suicide attacks this year which have killed more than 770 people — most killed after a controversial military raid on a radical pro-Taliban mosque in Islamabad left more than 100 people dead.
The president imposed a controversial six-week state of emergency in November, citing what he said was the need to clamp down on militants as well as what he called judicial interference in the running of the country.
But critics charged the emergency was only a cover for his decision to sack dozens of anti-Musharraf judges who might have entertained legal challenges to his re-election as president the previous month.
The state of emergency and his previous second role as head of the army — which he only relinquished under intense domestic and international pressure after his re-election — fuelled allegations he has ruled as an autocrat.
“Dictatorship has always damaged Pakistan and we must restore the supremacy of the people,” Bhutto, head of the main opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), told the earlier rally.
The election battle for parliament is essentially a three-way race between the parties of Bhutto, another former premier Nawaz Sharif, and the party that backs Musharraf.
While still in exile earlier this year, Bhutto held power-sharing talks with Musharraf before breaking them off and vowing never to serve in government underneath him.
Sharif is also a bitter rival of Musharraf, who ousted him in a 1999 coup. He cannot stand for parliament because of a previous criminal conviction, but his party remains a potent political force.
Musharraf is a pivotal ally in the US-led “war on terror” who sided with the United States after the September 11 attacks, when US troops invaded neighbouring Afghanistan to oust the Taliban rulers who sheltered Al-Qaeda.
But he has failed to stop the unprecedented wave of suicide attacks, which were once rare in Pakistan. Analysts say the violence is driven in part by his decision to ally the country with the United States.