Bhutto: Pakistan Spy Agency Pressuring Candidates to Drop Out of Parliament Elections

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto accused Pakistan's military intelligence Thursday of pressuring candidates from her party to drop out of next month's parliamentary elections and urged officials to crack down on such harassment.

President Pervez Musharraf in comments broadcast by state TV promised that the vote will be free and added the government has no plans to use spy agencies to manipulate its outcome.

Bhutto, a two-time prime minister who recently returned after years in exile, told reporters during a campaign stop her party has evidence of interference.

"We demand that the Election Commission should take notice of such things to ensure free and fair elections," she said, also accusing local mayors of gearing up to cheat.

She urged intelligence agencies to concentrate their efforts on capturing terrorists, adding, "This is not your job to indulge in politics."

Bhutto also asked Musharraf's government to act against those involved in rigging the vote, reminding him that he promised the Jan. 8 balloting will be free and fair.

Under pressure from the international community and domestic opposition, Musharraf also has said he would try to work with anyone getting a majority in Parliament. He has called allegations of rigging an attempt by Bhutto and other opposition leaders to create an excuse in case they fare poorly at the ballot box.

"They are preparing grounds for their losing," Musharraf said in comments broadcast by state-run Pakistan Television late Thursday, referring to the opposition charges that the upcoming elections will be rigged.

"The government will never be employed, the intelligence will never be used for manipulating the results," Musharraf said rejecting the opposition's allegations as "ridiculous."

Bhutto, traveling in a bulletproof vehicle and accompanied by tight security, was making her first tour to remote areas of Baluchistan province, where tribal elders have been waging an insurgency to pressure the central government to return more of the wealth from natural resources extracted in the area.

She urged about 10,000 flag-waving supporters at Dera Allah Yar to reject candidates from the ruling pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q party, saying it had done nothing for the welfare of the masses. Later, Bhutto addressed about 4,000 supporters in the nearby town of Jacobabad, promising she would alleviate poverty, create more jobs for youths and improve the ailing economy.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also has been vehemently opposing the pro-Musharraf party, and the two opposition leaders have indicated they may be willing to share power if, as expected, no party wins a majority.

Sharif initially called for a boycott of the vote but later changed his mind after Bhutto refused to join him. Sharif wants Musharraf to restore Supreme Court judges he sacked after imposing emergency rule Nov. 3.

Although Musharraf lifted the emergency last Saturday, he has refused to reinstate the deposed judges.

Aitzaz Ahsan, a prominent lawyer leading the calls for the judges to be reinstated, was released early Thursday from house arrest for the three-day Islamic holiday of Eid-al Adha that begins Friday, his wife Bushra Aitzaz said. He has been detained since Musharraf imposed the state of emergency.

Aitzaz, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, spent the day visiting judges and meeting with supporters and journalists in Lahore, his wife told The Associated Press by telephone from the family home in Lahore.

"He is very upbeat. We will win this battle," she said of her husband's quest to get the judges reinstated.

Deposed Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry plans to offer Eid prayers at a mosque in the capital Islamabad on Friday, a lawyer said.

Lawyers will gather near the official residence of Chaudhry, where he has been living under tight security since his ouster, to accompany him to the mosque, said Athar Minallah, a senior opposition lawyer.

"The interior minister has said that he is free to go to a mosque," Minallah said.