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Pakistani parties rally amid terror threat

Top critic Nawaz Sharif says President Pervez Musharraf hopes to silence the opposition ahead of Feb. 18 elections

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Ready: Nawaz Sharif heads PML-N, a leading opposition party.

K.M. Chaudary/AP

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Pakistani opposition leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif says in an interview with the Monitor that the government is trying to scare the opposition leaders into silence ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for Feb. 18.

The government has asked political leaders to refrain from large gatherings and rallies, saying they may become a target of suicide bombers. The request follows the Dec. 27 assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

As if to underscore the threat, a suicide bomb attack disrupted a Saturday rally of about 200 supporters of the Awami National Party in Charsadda, a town in northwestern Pakistan, which is a stronghold for Islamic militants. The attack killed about two dozen people and injured twice as many.

Another rally that day for the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), formerly led by Ms. Bhutto, went smoothly. About 100,000 people gathered in the southern city of Thatta, where Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's husband who now leads the party, promised to "save" Pakistan.

Mr. Sharif, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), a leading opposition party along with the PPP, admits that campaigning is not without danger. Pakistan has witnessed several suicide attacks on political figures and security personnel in recent months in which dozens of people have been killed.

Sharif, who left Pakistan in exile after being ousted in a bloodless coup by President Pervez Musharraf in 1999 and only returned late last year, says he takes his precautions. Much of his campaign take place indoors, and he travels with armed guards.

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