Pakistan considers ban on processions after attack

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KARACHI, Oct 22 (Reuters) Pakistani authorities are considering banning political processions in the run-up to a general election after a bomb attack on former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto killed 139 people.

The attack on Bhutto by suspected Islamist militants has raised fresh fears about stability in nuclear-armed Pakistan, where military president Pervez Musharraf is waiting for the Supreme Court ratify his October 6 election victory.

At least one suicide bomber attacked Bhutto early on Friday as she rode in a truck through the streets of Karachi, greeting hundreds of thousands of supporters welcoming her home from eight years of self-imposed exile.

Government officials said there was a possibility of more attacks and the government was considering a ban on processions during electioneering to avoid bloodshed.

''Elections are a few months away, we want a peaceful, conducive atmosphere to conduct the elections,'' Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao told reporters in Islamabad.

''We do not want to postpone the election and we do not want any sort of excuse for that.'' Another official said political meetings, where people could be checked at entrances, would be allowed.

While Bhutto also suspects Islamist militants were behind the attack, she has also alluded to the involvement of unidentified elements in the security agencies.

Her Pakistan People's Party today demanded the removal of the chief investigating officer from the case, alleging that he had been present when her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, was tortured while in custody in 1999.

Bhutto also urged the government to seek foreign expertise in the investigation. But Sherpao, a former aide to Bhutto, rejected that saying Pakistani officials could handle it.

No arrests had been made, he said.

The police released a photograph of the head of the suspected suicide bomber on Saturday and offered a reward for anyone who could identify him.

RESTORATION OF DEMOCRACY The United States and its allies hope General Musharraf, who came to power in a coup in 1999, and Bhutto, whose party is Pakistan's biggest, can cooperate and oversee a transition to civilian rule while sustaining efforts against terrorism.

Though political rivals for years, the two are regarded as progressive-minded and share a determination to tackle al Qaeda and allied militants.

Bhutto today visited the mausoleum of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and vowed she would continue efforts to restore democracy.

''The aim of the attack was to stop me from reaching the people,'' she said. ''We are following peaceful political ways and means. We are endeavouring for the restoration of democracy through negotiations.'' US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday telephoned Bhutto to express sympathy over the attack, her party said.

A Western diplomat said while the country was in danger it was not unstable, although politics was in a state of flux.

''I don't think the country is at the point where it is unravelling, but things are a little uncertain at the moment,'' the diplomat said.

The Supreme Court could still disrupt a rapprochement between Bhutto and Musharraf.

Not only is it questioning Musharraf's right to bestow an amnesty protecting Bhutto from graft charges, it is also hearing challenges to the president's right to have stood for re-election while still army chief in this month's electoral college vote.

The court today resumed its deliberations.

REUTERS SG VC1728

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