Musharraf promises free elections in Pakistan

January 21, 2008 10:53:14 AM PST
President Pervez Musharraf promised Monday that Pakistan will hold fair elections next month and urged the West to be more patient with his nation's efforts to achieve higher standards of human rights.

He also sought to ease worries about Pakistan's nuclear arsenal as Islamic extremists step up their fight with his government, insisting that tight security would prevent the weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists.

"We have a multilayer custodial and command system," Musharraf told the European Parliament as he began an eight-day European trip by meeting with senior EU and NATO officials.

Musharraf said Pakistan is a largely tribal society struggling to be a democracy and taking on the role of a front-line player in the global fight against terrorism.

Speaking of what he called an "obsession" with democracy in the West, Musharraf said: "You have taken centuries to reach where you have come. Allow us time for going for the value that you have reached for yourself."

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said after meeting with Musharraf that Feb. 18 parliamentary elections must be "free, fair and secure" and that their conduct would determine the bloc's relations and engagement with Pakistan.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told Musharraf that a stable Pakistan was crucial for both the alliance and neighboring Afghanistan.

Musharraf's trip is aimed at assuring European leaders that Pakistan is a reliable and indispensable ally in the fight against terrorist groups.

He said Pakistan suffers from "misperceptions, misunderstandings and distortions" in Western capitals and pleaded for understanding that his country faces a thorny path to raising standards of civil liberties.

"While we believe in democracy and human rights and civil liberties, please allow us time to reach what you have reached. And you have taken centuries to reach it," Musharraf said during an appearance before journalists and analysts.

The former army chief, who seized power in a 1999 coup, has been criticized for briefly imposing emergency rule late in 2007. Pakistan's political turmoil, with growing opposition to Musharraf's leadership, was compounded by the Dec. 27 assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

Musharraf acknowledged that 2007 was a "turbulent" year, capping 20 years of growing terrorism and extremism in Pakistan's western regions bordering Afghanistan.

But he rejected those who blame his government for playing a role in Bhutto's murder.

"The world was shocked, and so was I," Musharraf told the European Parliament. "I reject all theories of conspiracy. ... I consider all such conspiracy theories as trash."

During his European visit, Musharraf is scheduled to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

---- Associated Press writers Jan Sliva and Paul Ames contributed to this story


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