A senior government official on Monday rejected a call from Benazir Bhutto for foreign experts to help investigate the suicide attack on her homecoming procession. Bhutto said on Sunday she wanted US and British experts to assist in the probe into the Thursday night bombing in Karachi, which killed 136 people, wounded hundreds more, and left open the question of whether campaign rallies would be allowed ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections.
But Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said foreign experts would not be brought into the probe. "I would categorically reject this," he told reporters. "We are conducting the investigation in a very objective manner."
Bhutto, who escaped the blast because she had stepped into her armored bus minutes before the bomb went off, has called for an independent inquiry, questioning why many streetlights were not working as her convoy inched its way through the darkness, and noting the chief investigator is a police officer who had been present as her husband was allegedly tortured while in custody on corruption charges in 1999.
President Gen Pervez Musharraf has promised to conduct a thorough probe into the bombing. Police are questioning three people but have yet to announce any breakthrough.
The government has rejected Bhutto's allegation that elements within the current administration and security apparatus were trying to kill her. She claims they are remnants of the regime of former military leader Gen Zia-ul Haq, who oversaw the creation of mujahedeen groups that fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Veterans of that struggle later formed Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. "I have shared with the presidency who I think is out to eliminate me. The presidency does not share my views, so out of deference to them I have not publicly named them," she said on Sunday.
Pro-Taliban Islamists and a popular former prime minister, meanwhile, on Monday condemned a ban on campaign rallies proposed after the suicide bombing, calling it an attempt to rig elections that could lead to Bhutto sharing power with Pakistan's US-allied president.
Freewheeling political rallies have long formed the core of campaigning in this South Asian nation. Sadiq ul-Farooq, a leader of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party, claimed the proposal was part of a plan to rig election results by preventing "popular opposition leaders from reaching their voters."
Sherpao said the proposal would allow gatherings in specific, well-protected areas, but would ban large processions and rallies. Further violence, he indicated, could lead to a rescheduling of the vote.
"We do not want to postpone the elections and we do not want any sort of any excuse for that," he said. "We want a peaceful, conducive atmosphere."
Analysts warn that curtailed campaigning could hurt the elections' credibility and fuel political turmoil in the nuclear-armed nation as it faces a surge in Islamic extremism. There are growing signs that Musharraf and Bhutto, another former prime minister, are moving toward an alliance with a common mission to fight Islamic extremism, despite misgivings in the pro-Musharraf ruling party.
That would leave Sharif, who was ousted when Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup, to lead an opposition likely to include religious parties bitterly opposed to Pakistan's front-line role in the US-led war on terror.
Ameer ul-Azeem, spokesman for the Mutahida Majls-e-Amal, a coalition of opposition religious parties, denounced Musharraf as a "dictator who calls himself a democrat."
"Since Musharraf knows the ruling party is not able to organize any big rallies, he is now thinking of depriving opposition parties of their right to campaign," ul-Azeem told The AP. While authorities allowed Bhutto to return, Sharif was immediately deported to Saudi Arabia when he flew into Pakistan on Sept 10 from exile on a declared mission to force Musharraf from power.
Ul-Farooq insisted Sharif would try to return again within the next month. "It is the right of all political parties to hold rallies before and after the elections, and no one can stop us from doing it," he said.
Sharif served two terms as prime minister in the 1990s and remains Pakistan's most popular politician according to a recent poll. Bhutto said Sunday that while there should be no restrictions on political parties, each party would assess whether it was safe to go ahead with rallies.
The poll is drawing close scrutiny from Pakistan's Western backers, who don't want to be seen as propping up a military ruler. The National Democratic Institute, a US group that lobbies for democratic reform around the world, called for all party leaders to be able to take part in the ballot - an apparent reference to Sharif - and for an end to interference by Pakistan's intelligence agencies, which has discredited many polls in the past. Musharraf has pledged to quit his position as army chief and restore civilian rule if he secures another five-year presidential mandate.
(Associated Press writers Tim Sullivan and Sadaqat Jan in Islamabad and Matthew Pennington in Karachi contributed to this report.)