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Suicide car bombing at Pakistan election office in volatile northwest kills 37
Pakistan Election J 5403728
A Pakistani worker is seen on a truck loaded with ballot boxes to be delivered to election presiding offices in preparation for Monday's parliamentary elections, Saturday, Feb. 16, 2008, in Lahore, Pakistan. The stakes are high but enthusiasm appears low as Pakistanis face one of the most crucial elections in their history. - photo by Associated Press
    ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A suicide bomber rammed a car packed with explosives into an independent parliament candidate’s election office in northwest Pakistan Saturday, killing 37 people and wounding more than 90 days before a crucial vote, government officials said.
    Bodies were seen lying in pools of blood following the blast in Parachinar, a volatile tribal area bordering Afghanistan, one witness said.
    In another area along that border, a second car bombing near a checkpoint killed two civilians and wounded eight security personnel, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.
    The candidate targeted, Syed Riaz Hussain, was unharmed in the first attack. Hussain is backed by the opposition Pakistan People’s Party formerly led by the slain Benazir Bhutto. The party is challenging President Pervez Musharraf in parliamentary elections on Monday.
    Most of the victims appeared to be members of the opposition PPP. They had gathered at the candidate’s home following a campaign rally, said Mushtaq Hussain, an administrative official in the area.
    He said a suicide bomber apparently ‘‘rammed his explosive-laden car into the election office.’’
    Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said 37 people were killed and more than 90 wounded when a suicide bomber drove into a crowd as they were preparing to eat.
    Asked who could be behind the bombing, he said those ‘‘who want to derail the election process.’’
    The injured poured into a nearby hospital, many in critical condition with severe burn wounds, said Raza Hussain, one of the doctors.
    ‘‘Several of our party members are lying in a pool of blood,’’ said Zafar Ali, a party supporter at the scene.
    The attack came two days before elections considered crucial to restoring democracy in Pakistan after eight years of military rule under Musharraf.
    Recent opinion polls show the opposition poised for a landslide victory amid disenchantment Musharraf’s rule.
    Monday’s elections are taking place against a backdrop of rising Islamic militancy throughout Pakistan, and many candidates have been discouraged from holding large rallies. Security fears are highest in lawless tribal areas along the Afghan border.
    The Dec. 27 assassination of opposition leader Bhutto and a string of suicide bombings — some targeting campaign rallies — have been blamed on al-Qaida- or Taliban-linked militants.
    Also in the northwest Saturday, suspected militants bombed a polling station that badly damaged the building but caused no injuries.
    In the southwestern city of Quetta, hundreds of police surrounded and then clashed with more than 1,500 supporters of a coalition of anti-Musharraf parties boycotting the vote, injuring seven.
    The demonstrators threw rocks at police, who responded with tear gas before arresting 50 activists for the violence, police officer Raja Mohammed Ishtiaq said. A truck and three motorcycles were burned in the melee, and the street littered with party flags and shoes.
    The government has deployed 81,000 soldiers to back up 392,000 police assigned to protect voters, said military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.
    Musharraf said Saturday he was confident the elections would be free and fair and, hopefully, without violence.
    ‘‘We will have a stable, democratically elected government and with the stable, democratically elected government we will ensure a successful fight against terrorism and extremism,’’ he said in a speech to diplomats and senior government officials that ran on state-run Pakistan Television.
    Although Musharraf is not up for re-election, he could face impeachment if the opposition wins a two-thirds majority in the legislature.
    Opposition politicians fear the results will be manipulated in hopes of assuring the ruling party enough seats to block any impeachment.
    ‘‘We know very well that elections are being rigged,’’ former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, one of the president’s sharpest critics, told reporters at his home in the eastern city of Lahore. ‘‘We are going to elections in an environment of cheating, fear and threats.’’
    Kanwar Dilshad, the No. 2 official in Pakistan’s Election Commission, insisted there would be no rigging.
    ‘‘We are neutral. A level playing field has been provided to all the contesting candidates, and we are doing our job to ensure free, fair, transparent and peaceful elections,’’ Dilshad told The Associated Press.
    Last week, New York-based Human Rights Watch questioned the election commission’s impartiality, saying it has ignored complaints of harassment against opposition candidates.
    On Friday, Sen. Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States should consider cutting off military aid to Pakistan if the elections are rigged.
    Associated Press writer Sadaqat Jan in Islamabad and Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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