President Pervez Musharraf said Monday's crucial parliamentary elections would go ahead as planned despite a massive suicide car bombing at a campaign rally that killed at least 37 people and wounded nearly 100.
The bomber struck Saturday evening in the northwestern tribal belt town of Parachinar at the end of a rally for an independent candidate endorsed by Benazir Bhutto's opposition party. Mangled bodies lay in pools of blood as frantic rescuers scrambled to ferry the wounded to hospital.
The blast confirmed fears that Islamic extremists may try to sabotage the election campaign, targeting secular candidates such as those from Bhutto's party. Many Pakistanis also fear the government may delay the polls, using violence as a pretext.
But Musharraf told the state run Associated Press of Pakistan the election would go ahead as planned, saying "any effort to derail the democratic process or the holding of elections will be foiled."
On the eve of the ballot, streets were quiet early Sunday, with all campaigning banned the day before the polls.
Monday's elections are considered crucial to restoring democracy in Pakistan eight years after Musharraf seized power in a coup. He 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 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 People's Party. They had gathered at the home of candidate Syed Riaz Hussain after the rally, said Mushtaq Hussain, an administrative official in the Kurram area.
Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said 37 people were killed and more than 90 wounded. Asked who could be behind the bombing, Cheema said those "who want to derail the election process."
A second suicide car bombing occurred in Swat late Saturday, killing two civilians and wounding eight security personnel. Security forces have battled armed supporters of a pro-Taliban cleric in recent months in Swat, a former tourist destination.
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 Saturday the elections would be free, fair, peaceful and will usher in a stable government.
The government has deployed 81,000 soldiers to back up 392,000 police assigned to protect voters, Major General Athar Abbas, the army's top spokesman, said 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. (AP)
Pakistan's president says elections will go ahead despite violence