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Sun 3 Feb 2008 11:56 AM

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Bhutto husband to ignite election campaign

Asif Ali Zardari to battle for votes after mourning period for wife finishes on Thursday.

With just two weeks until Pakistan's general election, a muted campaign is set to heat up with Benazir Bhutto's husband taking to the stump for the first time since her assassination.

Asif Ali Zardari will battle for votes after the 40-day Muslim mourning period for his wife finishes on Thursday, with campaign preparations already under way for the February 18 polls, his Pakistan People's Party (PPP) said.

Campaigning has been almost non-existent since the opposition leader's death in a suicide attack on December 27, with the only sign of activity being the colourful political banners that hang in every town and village.

"Candidates are conducting their own electioneering in their constituencies but the co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari will start the election campaign from February 7 after the Chehlum," spokesman Farhatullah Babar told newswire AFP.

The Chehlum is the ceremony marking the end of mourning.

"There is lot of frustration and tempo [of the campaign] is very slow. From one point of view it is not good but then from another angle the sympathy element is very strong," Babar added.

Zardari's first major engagement is a public meeting on February 9 in the rural town of Thatha in Sindh province, senior party official Qaim Ali Shah said.

"He will also likely hold a rally in Karachi before heading off to Punjab," the country's most populous province, Shah said.

Western diplomats have warned of possible unrest at events to mark the end of mourning for Bhutto, whose death caused riots across nuclear-armed Pakistan and forced a six-week postponement of planned January 8 elections.

But the political scene has been eerily quiet since her death.

Opposition parties say the government of President Pervez Musharraf is talking up the threat to candidates, such as former premier Nawaz Sharif, in a bid to stifle electioneering ahead of the vote.

Rallies have been sparse after the government issued a "security advisory" for candidates to avoid big gatherings. Even the former ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party, which backs Musharraf, has kept a relatively low profile.

Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier Javed Cheema said the threat was genuine and that authorities were making "foolproof security arrangements for politicians who face threats from terrorism".

"Political parties have been advised to eschew large rallies and processions and restrict their public meetings at specified venues," Cheema told AFP.

"These precautionary measures are the need of the hour in view of terrorist attacks including the assassination of major national leader Benazir Bhutto."

Police in Karachi said last week they had smashed a plot by an Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic extremist group to disrupt election rallies.

The port city was the scene of Pakistan's biggest ever suicide bombing in October last year, when two suicide bombs at a parade for Bhutto's homecoming from exile killed 139 people.

Pakistani officials have blamed that bombing, as well as Bhutto's assassination, on an Islamist tribal warlord with alleged Al-Qaeda links.

But a spokesman for the party of Sharif - who was ousted by Musharraf in a coup in 1999 - said they had other fears.

"After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto the government says we have to be very careful and Nawaz Sharif is on the hit list also," spokesman Siddiqul Farooq told AFP.

"Whereas we feel that Nawaz Sharif faces no threat from the masses or from anyone else, except retired General Pervez Musharraf and the PML-Q leadership and their few loyalists in the [intelligence] agencies," he added.

Bhutto accused senior PML-Q figures and intelligence officials of complicity in the Karachi attack, allegations that have been strenuously denied by Musharraf.

Farooq said that the security measures were "affecting the election campaign".

"The momentum should pick up once the PPP leadership joins in, but normal and customary election campaign will still not be observed," he said.

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