Pak considers ban on processions after attack

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Karachi, Oct 22: Pakistani authorities are considering a ban on 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.

The attack came more than 10 hours after Bhutto had arrived back and as she was still inching her way from the airport towards the city-centre where she had been due to make a speech.

''We're proposing that big processions and rallies should be banned,'' deputy information minister Tariz Azim Khan today said.

''Political meetings should be held at specific places so that they can be given proper security. People attending can be checked,'' he said, adding that no decision had yet been taken.

A politician's popularity in Pakistan is marked not just by the size of a crowd he or she draws but by the length of time a procession takes, with the slower the better.

The longer the time, the more fervent the supporters thronging, and slowing down, a leader's convoy.

Opposition parties are likely to decry any attempt to limit their campaigning but political analysts said given the threat of bombers, parties had to think about their processions.

''Such rallies are quite pointless and merely invite danger,'' said Ayaz Amir, a political columnist with the Dawn newspaper.

Another analyst said a ban on processions wouldn't hurt parties.

''In this day and age of electronic media we don't really need those old sub-continental-type million-man marches,'' said former minister Shafqat Mahmood.

Stability Hope

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

The government has already said the violence will not derail the elections.

The United States and its allies hope the like-minded Musharraf and Bhutto, whose party if Pakistan's biggest, can oversee a smooth transition to civilian rule while sustaining efforts against terrorism.

Though political rivals for years, the two share a determination to tackle al Qaeda and allied militants.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Bhutto on Sunday to express sympathy over the attack, her party said.

Musharraf has already granted an amnesty to protect Bhutto from corruption charges brought by the government of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister he overthrew and later exiled.

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

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

The court resumed its deliberations today.

Musharraf had promised to quit the army and become a civilian leader, meeting another of Bhutto's conditions, if he was given five more years as president. There is speculation that he could invoke emergency powers or martial law if the court blocks him.


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