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Protaliban party wins

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Pro-Taliban Parties Win Pakistan Vote
Fri Oct 11, 6:19 AM ET
By KATHY GANNON, Associated Press Writer

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) - Several hardline religious parties had strong showings in Pakistani provincial and national elections, according to results Friday, a development that could hinder American efforts to chase down al-Qaida and Taliban fighters escaping Afghanistan (news - web sites).

The coalition of six hardline parties called for Pakistan to end its support of the U.S.-led war on terrorism. The bloc won a majority in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province legislature and was doing surprisingly well in voting for the national parliament, early results showed.

The parties' sympathy for the Taliban and al-Qaida was almost certain to give fighters a safe haven in the North West Frontier Province and other tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has been a key U.S. ally in the war in neighboring Afghanistan, and U.S. troops have been working with the Pakistanis in the North West Frontier Province because they say Taliban and al-Qaida have taken refuge in the remote, rugged border area.

But the religious parties oppose a U.S. presence in the area and have the backing of local tribes. The election results there seem a clear repudiation of Musharraf's support for the United States.

One of the religious alliance's leaders, Qasi Hussain Ahmed, said in an Urdu-language newspaper, The Jang, that the group would demand the United States close its bases in Pakistan.

American military officials in Afghanistan insisted Pakistan remained an ally, but refused to comment on the vote.

"We were following the election. Pakistan has been a great ally, and I imagine it will continue to be a great ally," Air Force Maj. Steve Clutter said at Bagram Air Force Base, where the U.S. military is headquartered.

Results for the National Assembly, Pakistan's lower house of parliament, were slow to come in, but initial results showed the religious parties performing surprisingly well.

With about one-third of the 342 districts heard from, the religious parties had more seats than any other party or alliance, election officials said. While the coalition is not expected to be able to form a government on its own, it seems set to be the powerbroker in any coalition government.

Thursday's polls were the first since the military ousted the democratically elected government in a bloodless 1999 coup.

The religious parties' strong showing could force Musharraf to rethink some of his policies, including his support for the U.S.-led effort and his promise to stamp out religious extremism.

Of the 99 seats in the North West Frontier Province's legislature, the religious coalition United Action Forum controlled 50 seats, according to early results from provincial officials.

But officially released results had the United Action Forum with 35 seats out of 57 declared districts.

The alliance also will likely pick up several of the province's 22 seats reserved for women, which are allocated according to a party's performance. There also are three seats in the frontier provincial assemblies for minorities.

The parties also appeared set to form a coalition government in southwestern Baluchistan province, which also borders Afghanistan and is suspected to harbor al-Qaida and Taliban fighters.

Despite the parties' strong showing, Musharraf has ensured in recent months that he will control Pakistan's fate for years to come. Constitutional changes mean he will stay president for the next five years and has the power to dismiss Parliament and the prime minister.

Vote counting for the National Assembly was slow and by early Friday only 40 of the 272 general seats in the federal Parliament were confirmed. Of those, the religious alliance already had 14 seats, including one in the capital, Islamabad.

The Pakistan People's party, led by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was about even with the pro-military Qaid-e-Azam faction of the Pakistan Muslim League.

Musharraf reserved 60 seats for women in the National Assembly as well as 10 for minority religious groups.

The military government praised Thursday's polling as a historic return to democratic rule. But the opposition said it was sleight of hand to mask Musharraf's firm grip on power.

Voter turnout appeared stronger than earlier anticipated despite a series of decrees that kept the country's best-known political players, including Bhutto, on the sidelines. About 72 million people were eligible to vote.

In Washington, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer (news - web sites) praised the vote.

"This is an important milestone in Pakistan's ongoing transition to democracy," he said. "We are committed to remaining engaged with Pakistan throughout this transition process."

A Musharraf decree that bars anyone convicted of a crime in absentia eliminated Bhutto, who has been convicted of corruption and is living in self-imposed exile. Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted by the general in 1999, accepted a 10-year exile to Saudi Arabia in return for his release from prison.

International observers monitored the elections amid opposition and human rights workers' claims that the military was manipulating the vote. The government has denied those charges, promising the elections would be "transparent and fair."

Bhutto's party complained of an "inordinate and inexplicable" delay in releasing results, and said it feared the government was tampering with the ballot boxes.

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