PAKISTAN'S army president announces general elections to be held Oct. 1-11, 2002

Tuesday, August 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) _ Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in Pakistan in a 1999 coup and declared himself president, promised Tuesday to hold nationwide elections _ the final stop on his ``roadmap to democracy.''

In an Independence Day speech, Musharraf said elections for federal and provincial parliaments would be held Oct. 1-11, 2002. But he gave no indication that he intended to give up his leadership post.

He also introduced a harsh new anti-terrorist law and banned two militant extremist groups, promising to stamp out sectarian violence that has long plagued the South Asian nation and has left hundreds dead.

``Pakistan is confronted by sectarian and ethnic extremists,'' said Musharraf. ``Our society has become an intolerant society and unfortunately innocent people are being killed.''

``We have to advocate tolerance, understanding of each other's views and beliefs,'' he said.

The international community has been pressing for a return to democracy in Pakistan, once a key U.S. ally and a nuclear power along with its neighboring rival, India. The United States imposed sanctions on Pakistan after Musharraf's coup _ the latest in a country where the military has ruled for 27 of the last 54 years.

In Tuesday's speech, Musharraf promised to create a democracy that would last, saying he would make constitutional changes that will ``introduce checks and balances'' into the system, as well as reform the election commission and prepare accurate election rolls.

Political analysts expect the constitutional changes will strengthen the president and create a new political system run by civilians but supervised by the army. Under the current constitution, the president is chosen by the federal and provincial parliaments.

The Supreme Court last year ordered general elections by October 2002, but also gave Musharraf unrestricted authority to change the constitution.

Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's opposition Pakistan People's Party dismissed Musharraf's speech, saying it was full of ``pious hopes and vague promises.''

``Any attempt to amend the constitution in a manner other than laid down in the constitution would endanger the federation,'' the party said.

Bhutto, who lives in self-imposed exile in Britain and the United Arab Emirates, has been twice dismissed from power and faces several charges of corruption in Pakistan.

Musharraf said local councils _ created in elections earlier this year as the first phase of his ``blueprint of democracy'' _ would change society's fabric by including long disenfranchised groups, such as women, the poor and peasant farmers.

``We are taking the government to the people,'' he said.

Musharraf also sought to take action against powerful militant Islamic groups _ something previous governments have hesitated to do because the groups are well-armed and able to incite people.

The general banned two groups implicated in violence between extremists in Pakistan's Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities _ the Sunni Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Shiite Sipah-e-Mohammed. Both groups are accused of assaults on rival mosques and drive-by shootings.

The new anti-terrorist law, which took effect on Tuesday, gives additional powers to the judiciary and police, including greater powers to search premises for weapons.

Musharraf seized power in October 1999, saying the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif had decimated the economy and threatened the survival of the country _ the latest in a long line of elected governments thrown out for corruption and ineptitude.

It is expected that if a civilian government is restored, Washington will lift sanctions. A U.S. law bars most types of aid to countries where a democratically elected government has been overthrown.

The measures came on top of earlier sanctions imposed on both Pakistan and India after their 1998 nuclear tests. Pakistan, whose economy is heavily dependent on foreign loans, has been particularly hard hit.