ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, (AP) – Opposition parties accused Pakistan’s government Wednesday of delaying elections to avoid likely defeat and said they feared the move could lead to more violence in a country still shaken by Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.
Meanwhile, Pakistani troops killed up to 25 suspected militants in a remote region close to the Afghan border where al-Qaida and Taliban fighters operate — underscoring the challenges facing the country as its leaders jostle for political control.
A senior Election Commission official told The Associated Press late Tuesday that the commission had put back the parliamentary elections, originally planned for Jan. 8, because of turmoil triggered by Bhutto’s killing.
He indicated the new date would not be before the second week of February, but refused to disclose the exact schedule before a formal announcement later Wednesday.
The opposition alleged authorities were postponing the polls to help the ruling party, which is allied to President Pervez Musharraf. Many believe Bhutto’s party would get a sympathy boost if the vote takes place on time. Bhutto had accused elements in the ruling party of plotting to kill her, a charge it vehemently denies.
“We reject this delay outright,” said Sen. Babar Awan from Bhutto’s party, the most powerful opposition group. “Musharraf fears outright defeat. If this election process is jeopardized, they (our followers) may protest again and there is a chance of riots.”
The killing of Bhutto, a former prime minister, triggered three days of nationwide unrest that killed 58 people and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage. Bhutto’s home province of Sindh was especially hard hit. Ten election offices were burned.
The Election Commission official said the organization needed “at least one month to make arrangements to hold free and fair elections after the damage caused to our offices in the Sindh province.” He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the decision.
In addition to logistical problems arising from the destruction caused by the rioting, he said the caretaker governments of all four provinces of Pakistan had suggested the vote not be held during the holy month of Muharram, from Jan. 10 through Feb. 8, because they could not guarantee security. Sectarian violence often breaks out between Pakistan’s Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
Still, Talat Masood, an independent political analyst judged the delay was “mostly about politics.”
“The (election) problems are only confined to a few districts. Musharraf naturally thinks if a hostile parliament comes in he has no future.”
The party of Nawaz Sharif, the leader of another opposition party, accused Musharraf of wanting a delay to allow anger over Bhutto’s death to evaporate.
“Right now they are the target of public hatred” said Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for the party.
Sen. Tariq Azim, from the ruling party, said the opposition was “turning a blind eye to realties on the ground” following the assassination, but stressed the ruling party had not asked the election commission for any delay.
Musharraf was due to address the nation on Wednesday evening.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called for the elections to take place as soon as possible.
“If the elections can go ahead in a safe way next week, then obviously they should,” Miliband told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. “If they can’t, they should only be delayed to another date — we can’t have an indefinite postponement.”
In South Waziristan, troops killed the 25 militants hours after four troops were abducted in the same district, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad and an intelligence official. Security forces sustained no injuries in the clashes, which frequently break out in the area.
The government has blamed South Waziristan-based militant leader Baitullah Mehsud for Bhutto’s murder, but he has denied involvement.
Meanwhile, a top aide of Bhutto revealed that on the day she was killed, the opposition leader was planning to give two U.S. lawmakers a 160-page dossier accusing the government of rigging the elections.
Bhutto was killed Thursday evening in a shooting and bombing attack on her vehicle as she left a campaign rally. She had been scheduled to meet hours later with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I..
Sen. Latif Khosa, a lawmaker from Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party, said she had planned to give the lawmakers a report outlining complaints on “pre-poll rigging” by Musharraf’s government and the military-run Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.
Khosa said he did not know if Bhutto’s killing was linked to her plans to release the document. Officials at the Information Ministry and the Interior Ministry declined comment. The government has denied charges of vote rigging and said it had nothing to do with Bhutto’s death.
The dossier outlined several instances of electoral interference, including one case where an officer from the intelligence services sat nearby as an election official rejected nomination papers from opposition candidates, Khosa said. Another official stopped a candidate from filing his nomination in the southwestern Baluchistan province, said Khosa, who wrote the report as head of the party’s election team.