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Sun 10 Feb 2008 02:17 AM

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Pakistan poll blast kills 20

Suicide bomber strikes opposition rally, raising new fears over election security in troubled country.

A suicide bomber killed 20 people at an opposition rally in Pakistan Saturday, raising new fears for the security of elections that have been overshadowed by the killing of Benazir Bhutto.

The attack in the country's militancy-hit northwest came as opposition leader Bhutto's widower told 100,000 people at a separate rally that he would "destroy" the establishment if the elections on February 18 are rigged.

It also coincided with a visit to Pakistan by the US military chief, who admitted that extremism was on the rise in the South Asian nation but insisted its nuclear weapons were safe.

The suicide bomber struck as hundreds of people gathered for a meeting of the Awami National Party (ANP), a small, nationalist ethnic Pashtun party, in the town of Charsadda.

Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz linked the attack to a wave of other bombings blamed on Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants that have claimed more than 70 lives this year.

"This is very significant that the ANP rally has been hit... these people are trying to hit at everyone, the threat posed by them is challenging everyone in Pakistan," he told newswire AFP.

"We are beefing security measures because only a little more than a week is left in the elections," he added.

Last year former interior minister Aftab Sherpao survived two suicide attacks in Charsadda that left dozens of people dead, the most recent being in December.

But an ANP spokesman said he believed government intelligence agencies were behind the blast.

"We blame security agencies for the attack. The agencies want to create civil war and want to support dictatorship," spokesman Zahid Khan told AFP.

"The bomber blew himself up very near the stage, the party's provincial candidate was slightly injured. But it was a meeting which was not held in the open, but inside four walls, so how come the bomber was conveniently able to enter?"

Provincial health minister Syed Kamal Shah told AFP that 20 people were killed and 25 injured.

The attack comes three days after gunmen on a motorbike shot dead the ANP's vice-president, Fazalur Rehman Atakhel, in the southern city of Karachi.

Election rallies have been sparse since Bhutto's death in a suicide bomb and gun attack in Rawalpindi on December 27 and after the government issued a "security advisory" for candidates to avoid big gatherings.

President Pervez Musharraf blamed an Al-Qaeda-linked militant commander based in a troubled tribal zone bordering Afghanistan for her killing.

In his first major step on the campaign trail since then, Bhutto's husband Asif Ali Zardari held a huge rally in the rural town of Thatta in the former premier's home province of Sindh, in southern Pakistan.

"The system has assassinated her. She wanted to change the system, that is why they are against us," Zardari, who is currently running Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, said to the cheering crowd.

"If they try to intimidate me and rig the poll I will destroy them and I hope you people will support me all along," he added.

More than 100,000 people attended the rally despite the warnings of possible attacks, said police official Shabir Chandio. Some 2,000 police were deployed around the venue.

US Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen meanwhile held talks with Musharraf and top military officials, focusing on counter-terrorism.

Asked about rising militancy, he said: "Certainly the threat is going up. We are both concerned about that".

But he added: "I am very comfortable that the nuclear weapons are secure and that proper procedures are in place. I am not concerned that they are going to fall into the hands of any terrorists".

Mullen also ruled out direct US intervention to deal with the Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants who he said had found safe havens in the country's rugged tribal region.

Pakistan earlier Saturday dismissed a senior US official's assertion that Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar were operating from its border areas.

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