Pakistan volatile but unrest has calmed: EU observer

ISLAMABAD – Violence may erupt in volatile Pakistan in the run-up to February elections but a six-week postponement of the polls has not fueled unrest, the head of a European Union observer mission said on Friday.

The Election Commission postponed the general election, which is meant to complete a transition to civilian rule in the nuclear-armed country, because of violence that erupted after opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated last week.

Nearly 50 people were killed, most of them in Bhutto’s home province of Sindh, after she was killed in a gun and suicide-bomb attack while leaving a rally in the city of Rawalpindi.

The election for a lower house of parliament and assemblies in Pakistan’s four provinces was originally scheduled for January 8 but will now be held on February 18.

“The security situation is, of course, well, volatile,” the head of the EU observer mission, Michael Gahler, told a news conference.

“We cannot exclude that violence may erupt for whatever reason … but at the moment it’s my impression that the level of unrest has definitely calmed down,” he said.

The two main opposition parties, including Bhutto’s had insisted that the vote be held on time, suspecting authorities wanted to delay the vote to give time for the anti-government anger Bhutto’s murder inflamed time to subside.

But the parties did not call for protests in response to the delay.

“This postponement has not caused any further unrest so we think that parties and people are now duly preparing for the election,” Gahler said.

The EU has had a core team of 11 election experts in Pakistan since last month and about 50 long-term observers will be deployed in coming days. They will be joined by a similar number of short-term observers before the vote.

Bhutto and other opposition leaders had accused authorities of preparing to rig the vote.

A top Bhutto aide said this week she was poised to reveal proof that the Election Commission and the country’s shadowy spy agency were seeking to rig the vote the night she was assassinated.

But President Pervez Musharraf has dismissed accusations of rigging and has promised the vote will be free and fair.

Gahler said members of his team would travel to most parts of the country except tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan where Taliban and al Qaeda militants operate.

He said the team would put out a preliminary

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