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Fear grips Pakistan as election approaches

  • Story Highlights
  • Attendance sparse at Pakistan's political rallies; voters say they're afraid
  • Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Rawalpindi in December
  • Suicide bombers have killed dozens in the city since September
  • Parliamentary elections scheduled for February 18
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From Jennifer Eccleston
CNN
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RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (CNN) -- Sardar Rehman is a politically active father of five for whom campaign rallies had, until now, been a family event.

art.pak.blast.afp.gi.jpg

A suicide bombing in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on Monday killed at least four people.

For him, getting out the vote was as crucial as the vote itself.

But not this year.

"Who knows what kind of explosions will happen?" said Rehman, a hotel manager in the southern Pakistani city of Rawalpindi. "Who knows what kind of of upheaval there will be?"

The parliamentary elections in Pakistan are scheduled for February 18, less than two weeks away. But attendance at rallies has plummeted. People openly admit fear is keeping then from participating. And politicians voice concern about their own safety.

Hours after Rehman talked to CNN on Monday, a suicide bomber rammed a motorcycle into a van carrying army medics just miles from Rehman's home. The Pakistani military said the explosion killed four people. The city police placed the number of victims at six.

Thus goes life in Pakistan, where each week brings fresh chaos. Rawalpindi -- a closely guarded city that is home to the country's military headquarters -- has been hit particularly hard by a spate of suicide bomb attacks in recent months.

In December, former opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed at a rally in the city. While the cause of her death is unclear, a bomber blew himself up near her limousine, and videotape showed a gunman present. Her death forced the government to postpone elections for a month.

Two suspects in Bhutto's assassination were arrested in Rawalpindi on Thursday, police said.

Two months before Bhutto's slaying, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive near the army headquarters -- which houses President Pervez Musharraf's office -- killing six people and wounding 10 others. Musharraf, who was inside his office at the time of the blast, was not injured.

And in September, two suicide bombers blew themselves up, killing at least 25 people. One attack targeted a bus carrying government employees. In the other, a suicide bomber crashed his motorcycle into cars.

The government blames Islamic militants for the attacks. It said Bhutto's assassination was orchestrated by Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban who has ties to al Qaeda -- a conclusion that the CIA came to as well.

"Now all Pakistanis, when they leave their home in the morning, they say goodbye," Rehman said, "because by evening time, Allah is the only one who knows who will return and who won't."

Rehman and others said the state isn't doing enough to keep people safe -- a charge that's echoed by members of the opposition party.

The government, in turn, points the finger at campaigning politicians.

"It is of paramount importance that the political leadership is sensitized about the looming threat and asked to adopt a security conscious approach," said Brigadier Javed Iqbal Cheema, the spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

His advice to political leaders: Avoid unnecessary public exposure.

Since Bhutto's death, political leaders have heeded the suggestion, albeit reluctantly.

Rallies and marches that normally draw tens of thousands of supporters -- once a staple of Pakistani politics -- have all but disappeared.

In this climate, voters turn to Pakistan's media to fill the void. But freedom of expression has become another casualty of the permeating fear.

"Anything seen to be critical of the government [is] likely to land the channel in trouble," said Talat Hussein, an anchor for private television channel Aaj TV.

Aaj and other stations were yanked off the air when President Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule last year. The government later allowed them to resume broadcast but only after they agreed to a mandatory code of conduct. Among other stipulations, the stations are now banned from live broadcasts -- political or not.

Late Wednesday, Hussein's show was again indefinitely pulled off the air after it aired a segment on Bhutto's assassination.

"It creates a psychological environment of fear," Hussein said. "And then of course there is the fear of getting picked up [by law enforcement]. Of course, everything goes into the basket of extremists these days, but you never know who is firing the bullet."

Back in Rawalpindi, Mohammed Javed -- a young barber -- said he will vote because it's his civic duty.

"But really, what's the point?" he said. "Will it open my shop in the morning? Will it feed my children? I fear not." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About PakistanBenazir BhuttoPervez MusharrafAl Qaeda

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