Anti-militant efforts lacking, Bhutto says
LARKANA, Pakistan – Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto accused the government Sunday of failing to crush Islamic militants, days after a suicide bombing killed 56 people during prayers in a mosque.
Meanwhile, an army statement said a suicide bombing of a military convoy killed five civilians and four soldiers in the troubled northwest.
It said 13 civilians and 10 soldiers were also wounded in the attack in the town of Mangora in Swat district, where security forces have carried out several operations against followers of a pro-Taliban radical Islamic cleric.
Bhutto’s criticism came hours before the latest suicide attack. She spoke as the campaign heated up for next month’s parliamentary elections, with politicians addressing rallies around the country.
The former prime minister, speaking to about 25,000 supporters in her hometown of Larkana, said the ruling party of President Pervez Musharraf’s government bore the blame for the rise of Islamic militancy.
“Militants gained power, and the government’s legitimacy weakened,” Bhutto said.
Though Pakistan is a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, Taliban and al-Qaida fighters have extended their influence over parts of the volatile northwest in the past two years.
They have launched numerous suicide attacks in recent months, usually targeting security officials and their families.
In the mosque attack, a suicide bomber, apparently targeting former Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao, blew himself up Friday. Sherpao said the explosion killed 56 people.
As interior minister, Sherpao helped lead the government’s fight against militants. He survived another suicide attack eight months ago.
Sherpao, who is also running for parliament in the Jan. 8 elections, said the latest bombing would not deter him from campaigning.
“I have a cause and it is to serve my country,” he said in Peshawar, a city adjacent to the capital, Islamabad.
Bhutto escaped two suicide attacks in October when she returned to the country after eight years in exile.
Another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, held a rally Sunday in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi. Sharif also recently returned from exile in Saudi Arabia after Musharraf ousted his government in a 1999 coup.
Addressing supporters from his Pakistan Muslim League-N party, Sharif told supporters that voting for his party would help oust Musharraf, who declared emergency rule on Nov. 3, giving the government stronger powers. Musharraf lifted the state of emergency on Dec. 15.
“We will ensure the rule of law,” said Sharif, who is campaigning even though he has been barred from running for parliament by the Election Commission for his alleged involvement in a corruption case and other charges.
“I promise that I will strive to put Pakistan back on the path of democracy, because we need the rule of law, not a dictator,” Sharif said.
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