Nowshera: Guarded by hundreds of police, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto took her campaign to Pakistan's restive tribal northwest as the opposition oiled its vote machinery yesterday to battle President Pervez Musharraf.
After a vote boycott drive disintegrated, main opposition leaders Bhutto and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, both returned from exile, organised rallies as a campaign clouded by worries of vote rigging and rising militant attacks geared up.
Underlining the insecurity, pro-Taliban militants killed six 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.
More than 800 people have been killed in militant-related fighting since July, military officials say.
"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.
With the main opposition parties adding some credibility to a January 8 parliamentary election by agreeing to run, political leaders organised their parties before the campaign picks up pace after 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.
The election is essentially a three-way contest between the two main opposition parties and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), which backs Musharraf.
The election comes amid 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 PML, formed to give Musharraf a political base after his 1999 coup, could fare badly as his popularity has slumped this year amid his efforts to replace a Supreme Court chief seen as hostile to his government.
The election is crucial for Musharraf, who has promised that this weekend he will lift emergency rule. 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 Peoples Party will have to enter into a coalition to create a ruling majority.
4 parties in the fray
Four out of six member parties of Pakistan's religious alliance Muttahida Majlis Amal (MMA) have decided to contest January 8 general elections from the platform of the grouping.
The parties took the decision at a meeting in Islamabad overnight of the MMA supreme council, which was not attended by Jamaat-e-Islami headed by Qazi Hussain Ahmad, who is also president of the religious alliance, and a faction led by Maulana Samiul Haq.
The alliance has been effectively split following a rift between Jamaat-e-Islami, which wants boycott of the polls, and MMA secretary general Maulana Fazlur Rahman's Jamiat Ulema, which has rebuffed calls for staying away from the elections.
Rahman told reporters the MMA supreme council took no decision about changing president of the alliance, but it authorised the secretary general to issue letters with his signature to candidates who would contest the elections from the MMA platform.
Qazi Hussain Ahmad, addressing the bar association in Lahore on Tuesday, said participation by the parties of former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif and components of MMA would be contrary to national interests.
Terming the January elections a "fraud" the Jamaat-e-Islami chief hailed the lawyers' movement for the deposed judges and restoration of the judiciary to its before-November 3 position when President Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule and suspended the constitution.
- Shahid Hussain, Correspondent