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Bhutto, Sharif target Musharraf

Former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have hit the presidential campaign trail. They are concentrating their fire on the incumbent president, Pervez Musharraf. (Report: N. Rushworth)

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NOWSHERA, Pakistan, Dec 12 (Reuters) - Guarded by hundreds

of police, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto took her

election campaign to Pakistan's tribal northwest on Wednesday as
the opposition prepared to battle President Pervez Musharraf.
 
After a vote boycott drive disintegrated, main opposition
leaders Bhutto and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who have
both returned from exile, organised rallies in a campaign
clouded by worries of vote rigging and militant attacks.
 
Underlining the insecurity, pro-Taliban militants killed six
Pakistani soldiers in an attack on a military convoy in the
northwest near the Afghan border and 15 insurgents were killed
in retaliation, the military said.
 
"We should not sit as silent spectators while terrorists are
killing innocent people," Bhutto told supporters in the town of
Nowshera in North West Frontier Province, where tribal militants
are fighting government forces.
 
Several thousand people chanted "Prime Minister Bhutto" and
clapped as she stood to speak from behind a bullet-proof podium.
 
More than 800 people have been killed in militant-related
fighting since July, military officials say.
 
With the main opposition parties adding credibility to a
Jan. 8 parliamentary election by agreeing to run, political
leaders organised their parties before the campaign picks up
pace with the publication of candidates' lists on Sunday.
 
Sharif held rallies in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous
province, which returns about half the members of parliament and
is his traditional stronghold of support.
 
"These meetings are kind of warm-up matches," said Ahsan
Iqbal, spokesman for Sharif's party.
 
The election is essentially a three-way contest between the
two main opposition parties and the Pakistan Muslim League
(PML), which backs Musharraf.
 
The opposition fears there is too little time before the
election for a free and fair vote and that the result will be
biased in favour of parties loyal to Musharraf, raising the
prospect of a contested result.
 
The Pakistani media, curbed under emergency rule imposed by
Musharraf last month, said authorities were trying to restrict
election coverage with a warning not to violate a ban on live
broadcasts, or risk three years in jail.
 
"It's not only a warning but a threat to all TV channels and
an attempt to silence the free media," the Pakistan Federal
Union of Journalists said in a statement.
 
Any contested result would lead to the prospect of more
instability in the nuclear-armed U.S. ally.
 
Asked whether U.S. President George W. Bush retains
confidence in Musharraf, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino
told reporters:
 
"He (Musharraf) said that the state of emergency would be
lifted on December 16. And today is only the 12th. So let's wait
and see."
 
CONSIDERING COALITIONS
 
The PML, formed to give Musharraf a political base after his
1999 coup, could fare badly because his popularity has slumped
this year in tandem with his efforts to replace a Supreme Court
chief regarded as hostile to his government.
 
A poor showing in the election could mean a hostile
parliament that might even move to impeach Musharraf, who
stepped down as army chief last month, over accusations he acted
unconstitutionally in securing a new term as president.
 
Bhutto said she expected her Pakistan People's Party will
have to enter into a coalition to create a ruling majority.
 
Bhutto said joining with the party of Sharif would be
possible but ruled out an alliance with those controlled by
Musharraf or Muslim clerics, the Washington Times reported.
 
"No one will accept a (pro-Musharraf PML) victory," she
said.
 
Sharif has been barred from running because of criminal
convictions he says were politically motivated. He has said he
has no plans for an electoral alliance with Bhutto.

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