Musharraf defends delay to election

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Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, on Wednesday night defended the decision to postpone by six weeks the general elections that were due to be held on Tuesday, insisting a free and fair vote had become impossible because of the rioting that followed the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

"The extent of damage in Sindh is unimaginable," Mr Musharraf said in a televised broadcast, promising to deploy the army and paramilitaries to ensure law and order during the election. "No agitation will be allowed at any cost." It is the first time that a general election in Pakistan has been delayed after it has been officially announced.

Mr Musharraf said he would accept an offer of British assistance in the investigation into the death of the 54-year-old former prime minister.

British officials said the UK government, one of several to offer help, had no desire to rubberstamp any side's version of events, but wanted to help cool the controversy over how Bhutto died.

The Pakistani government maintains she died from a blow to her head from a sunroof during a suicide bomb blast rather than from bullets fired moments before by one or several assassins, as her party claims.

The UK's Metropolitan Police Service said that a small team of its counterterrorism officers, at the request of the Pakistani government, would as soon as possible travel to Pakistan to provide assistance into the investigation, which would continue to be led by local authorities.

Forensic experts are pessimistic that outside agencies will be able to recover useful evidence from the crime scene, which was hosed down shortly after the attack. Bhutto's family has refused to consider exhuming her body for an autopsy, even though this may now be the only way to lay the controversy to rest.

Bhutto supporters say the government is trying to diminish the dignity of her death by suggesting she banged her head on a lever.

They have accused the government of seeking to distract attention from its failure to prevent an armed assassin from coming within metres of the country's most targeted politician.

Earlier in the day, election commissioner Qazi Mohammad Farooq confirmed the poll had been delayed to February 18. The announcement, widely expected, prompted protests from opposition parties, which accused the government of buying time to rig the poll.

The delay is shorter than the three to four month postponement favoured by the ruling pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam). It fears that the Pakistan People's party is poised to benefit from a sizeable sympathy vote.

Both the centre-left PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), the conservative opposition party of former premier Nawaz Sharif, said they doubted the government's sincerity in holding the election, but re-committed themselves to participating.

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