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US backs Musharraf, urges free elections

Islamabad, June 16 (Reuters): Senior US officials offered broad support to an embattled President Pervez Musharraf today, while exhorting him to ensure that elections due this year in Pakistan were free and fair.

Deputy secretary of state John Negroponte met Musharraf, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and Pakistan’s top military brass against the backdrop of a brewing political crisis over the President’s move to sack the country’s top judge.

Negroponte said he had been encouraged by senior Pakistani officials to come to Islamabad and he noted the importance of the long-term, strategic relationship with nuclear-armed Pakistan, a key ally in the fight against al Qaida and a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

He was accompanied by assistant secretary of state Richard Boucher. Admiral William J. Fallon, chief of the US Central Command, met Musharraf later today.

US officials this week have said they expect Musharraf to honour his commitments, but Negroponte struck a permissive stance on the issue of the uniform. “I think that is something that President Musharraf will himself want to decide,” Negroponte said in the US embassy in Islamabad.

“I am sure that he is going to make that decision based on considerations that he considers to be relevant with respect to the situation as he sees it.”

In Washington, state department spokesman Sean McCormack endorsed Musharraf’s leadership qualities, at a time when the general is facing the most serious challenge to his authority since taking power in a coup eight years ago.

“We believe that President Musharraf is an agent for positive change, not only in the region, but for Pakistan,” McCormack said.

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