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Dozens Die In Run Up To Pakistan's Elections


It's Friday and it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

We are learning more this morning about an outbreak of targeted violence in Pakistan. The special prosecutor investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was shot dead today. He was sprayed with gunfire by two assailants on a motorbike as he left his home in Islamabad. Earlier this week, the prosecutor had said there was evidence to implicate former military ruler Pervez Mosharraf in the politically charged case.

And while the motive for that attack remains unclear, it does add to a growing toll of violence as Pakistan prepares to hold an election next week. In the run-up to the May 11th vote for the National Assembly, militants have killed candidates and targeted the offices of three secular parties. Dozens of people have died.

From Islamabad, here's NPR's Julie McCarthy.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The People's Party of President Asif Ali Zardari and its two main coalition partners are unable to hold public rallies in their home provinces for fear of being killed. The parties that ruled the past five years are in the cross-hairs of the Pakistan Taliban.

Journalist Rahimullah Yousafzai says militants want to terrorize the secular, nationalist and progressive elements that launched military operations against them.

RAHIMULLAH YOUSAFZAI: If you look at the situation over the last few weeks, the militants actually have been driving the agenda. They are attacking. And they actually are having fun.

MCCARTHY: Ahmed Rashid, author of "Pakistan on the Brink," says the election-related violence is the direct result of the government's and the military's failure to comprehensively combat the militants.

AHMED RASHID: Five years ago we had problems with the tribal areas with the Pakistani Taliban. Today we have problems in Baluchistan, in Karachi - we have three mini-civil wars going on. If people were genuine about these elections, the government and the army a year ago should have begun operations which would have lead to the clearing up of some of this mess.

MCCARTHY: The intimidation tactics are skewing the election. With liberal parties driven from the scene, center-right parties have been given a clear field. And only one out of four provinces has been spared the militant onslaught, the Punjab, the most populous of the provinces and also home turf of opposition leader and frontrunner Nawaz Sharif.

NAWAZ SHARIF: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Sharif, who confines his campaign to the Punjab, tells large rallies that he will lift the country from the swamp of its problems. But he is careful not to label the militants among those problems.

Ahmed Rashid says Sharif has a lot of sympathy for the fundamentalists who in turn sympathize with his right wing views. If he comes to power, Rashid says, he will have to walk a fine line.

RASHID: The death toll of this election is going to be enormous. And it's going to be a blight and a shame on Pakistan's democratic legacy. And Sharif will have to live with that and he will have to also try and do something about it.

MCCARTHY: Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, another well-known contender, have shown little solidarity with their more liberal opponents, issuing only tepid remarks about the attacks on them.

Newspaper editor Rashed Rahman suggests that both men are living an illusion if they think they will not provoke the Taliban, opposed as the militants are to the democratic system.

RASHED RAHMAN: Will they be safe from the unwanted attentions of the Taliban? I think the answer to that is fairly obvious.

MCCARTHY: Rahman says the surging violence has called into question the credibility of the election and has deepened resentment against the richest province, the Punjab, now the one place where it is safe to campaign. But Rahimullah Yousefzai says the violence has in fact swept up the entire country, hurting the economy, killing civilians, and, he says...

YOUSAFZAI: Pushing the people into believing that the state cannot protect them.

MCCARTHY: As part of the security for the election that is just eight days away, the army has agreed to deploy 70,000 troops. And Retired Lieutenant General Talat Masood predicts that despite the violence, Pakistanis will go to the polls in droves.

TALAT MASOOD: The resilience of the people and their level of, you know, taking risk will probably make them go through the elections, however bloody they may be.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.