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Pakistan: push for polls despite suicide bombing

An attack in Lahore, the first since Bhutto's assassination, raises fresh worries about security for Feb. 18 elections.

By David MonteroCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 11, 2008

Shattered security: A motorcycle lies amid other detritus at the site of the suicide bombing Thursday outside the High Court in Lahore, Pakistan.

K.M. Chaudhry/ap

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan

Shattering two weeks of tenuous calm following Benazir Bhutto's assassination last month, a suicide bomber struck Thursday in the city of Lahore, the capital of Pakistan's heartland. The spread of violence to yet another city is likely to raise fresh doubts that security in Pakistan is conducive to elections – already delayed until Feb. 18 – that will bolster the country's political process.

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Although suicide attackers have targeted Pakistan's other major cities, particularly Islamabad and Karachi, Thursday's bombing, which left 26 dead and 70 injured, was the first of its kind in Lahore, a previously quiet city of 7 million best known for its rich historical heritage and bustling social life.

Analysts warn against delaying the elections again, in spite of the violence. Only the free exercise of the national vote, however flawed and tinged with violence, can guide Pakistan toward greater political stability, they say.

As yet, Pakistan's elections are scheduled to go on. But Thursday's violence highlights the conundrum now facing the country.

Canceling elections, far from solving the country's security woes, could add to them, fomenting a violent backlash from the opposition, analysts say. But if elections do proceed, voter turnout could be low, with frightened citizens thinking twice about attending large political gatherings or visiting crowded polling stations. Low turnout will bolster President Pervez Musharraf's ruling party, which might otherwise face a formidable challenge from the opposition, some analysts say.

"If there's a serious security situation, many people will not come out. And if they don't come out for elections, that will play into the hands of the government," says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst in Lahore.

Targeting security forces

The main target of the attack appears to have been a contingent of police who were deployed outside Lahore's High Court, in the center of the city. If so, the attack is consistent with a growing campaign by militants to target government personnel and members of the security and armed forces. Some 800 people, most of them police or Army personnel, have been killed in suicide attacks this past year.

But the attacker may also have set his sights on another target: lawyers who had planned a demonstration against the Musharraf regime.

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