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Benazir to hawks: vote for me

Peshawar, Dec. 1 (Reuters): Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto took her election campaign to the power base of Islamist groups today, urging Pashtuns living on the Afghan border to vote for her.

Bhutto, who survived an assassination attempt blamed on Islamist militants last month, said she was confident her Pakistan People’s Party would sweep the January 8 general election.

“I have come here to seek your help and cooperation to turn this land of Pashtuns into a cradle of peace,” she said while addressing around 2,000 party activists in Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province that borders Afghanistan.

“I appeal to you not to fall into the trap of those who believe in violence... Reject those who want to form the government at gunpoint.”

Bhutto returned to Pakistan last month from an eight year self-imposed exile to challenge President Pervez Musharraf’s grip on power. The President’ political allies are likely to fare badly in the election, putting a question mark over his long-term rule.

Pakistani tribal areas along the border are known as safe havens for al Qaida and ethnic Pashtun Taliban militants who fled US-led forces hunting them in Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks in 2001.

But in recent years, militants have spread their activities towards urban centres of NWFP, including Peshawar, launching suicide bomb attacks and fighting police and army forces. Since government forces stormed the Lal Masjid in Islamabad in July to crush a Taliban-style movement, attacks have spread across the country and grown in intensity. Official sources say around 800 people have died in violence since July.

Oxford and Harvard educated Bhutto had been regarded in the West as a potential partner for Musharraf, a crucial US ally in its fight against al Qaida, but prospects for a deal dimmed after Musharraf imposed emergency rule on November 3.

Musharraf retired from the army this week and promised to lift emergency rule on December 16, fulfilling two of Bhutto’s demands. But there are no signs they are resuming dialogue. She also wants the election commission reconstituted and local government leaders suspended to ensure a fair vote.

“We are taking part in the election under protest because enemies of the people are trying to rig the polls,” she said.

Bhutto has left open the option of joining another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who returned from exile on Sunday, in a boycott. Sharif, who might be barred from running because of criminal convictions, will meet Bhutto on Monday to convince her to boycott, a party spokesman said.

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