Pakistan's president said Monday's crucial parliamentary elections would go ahead as planned despite a massive suicide car bombing at a campaign rally that killed up to 46 people, many of them supporters of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
The army, meanwhile, imposed a curfew in the northwestern tribal belt town of Parachinar, where the bomber struck on Saturday evening at the end of a rally for an independent candidate. Cars were banned from the roads and residents told to stay indoors. There were conflicting death tolls, with mangled bodies lying in pools of blood as frantic rescuers scrambled to ferry scores of critically wounded to the hospital, but Mushtaq Hussain, a Parachinar security official, put the number at 46 on Sunday. The blast confirmed fears that Islamic extremists may try to sabotage the elections, considered crucial to restoring democracy following eight years of military rule, by targeting secular candidates such as those from Bhutto's opposition party. Many also fear the government may delay the polls, using violence as a pretext.
But President Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, told the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan that the election would go ahead as planned, saying "any effort to derail the democratic process or the holding of elections will be foiled." The retired army general is facing rising public anger following decisions late last year to declare emergency rule, purge the judiciary and impose restrictions on the press, some of which are still in place.
That has "prevented Pakistani journalists from working as they should, especially ahead of elections," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, noting that a ban remains on publishing or broadcasting reports that defame the head of state, members of the armed forces, or government institutions. "Musharraf's restrictions on the media undermine the chances that Pakistan will have free and fair elections this week," he said.
Musharraf, a key ally in the US war on terror, is also facing a rise in Islamic extremism, especially in the country's volatile northwest.
A string of deadly suicide bombings, including the December 27 assassination of Bhutto, have left hundreds dead and discouraged many candidates from holding large rallies. Voters too say they may stay at home on Monday.
Most of the victims in Saturday's attack appeared to be members of Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party. They had gathered at the home of Syed Riaz Hussain, an independent candidate endorsed by the PPP, after the rally, said Mushtaq Hussain, an administrative official in the Kurram area.
The targeted candidate said 40 people were killed and that more than 110 hurt.
Funerals would be held for many of the victims on Sunday, he said, and the army agreed to relax its curfew in some areas so family members could attend.
Recent opinion surveys show the opposition poised for a landslide victory on Monday. Although Musharraf is not up for re-election, the retired army general could face impeachment if the opposition wins a two-thirds majority in the legislature, as many predict. His critics are worried he will rig the vote, but Musharraf insisted on Saturday the elections would be free, fair, peaceful and will usher in a stable government.
"With the stable, democratically elected government we will ensure a successful fight against terrorism and extremism," he said in a speech broadcast on state-run Pakistan Television. The government has deployed 81,000 soldiers to back up 392,000 police assigned to protect voters, Maj Gen Athar Abbas, the army's top spokesman, said on Saturday.
Saturday's attacks came a day after police announced they had seized bomb-making materials and arrested 10 suspected Taliban-linked militants in the southern city of Karachi, where some 150 people died in an October suicide attack that narrowly missed Bhutto.
On Saturday, police also arrested a man found with a suicide vest in Hyderabad, a city about 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Karachi, said regional police chief Shaukat Shah.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad in Islamabad, Riaz Khan in Peshawar and Abdul Sattar in Quetta contributed to this report.