Riot damage likely to force Pakistan to delay election until Feb.

The Baltimore Sun

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The nation's Election Commission said yesterday that damage done to electoral offices during rioting that followed Benazir Bhutto's assassination made it impossible for Pakistan to hold parliamentary elections next Tuesday as scheduled.

The commission, which is made up of supporters of President Pervez Musharraf, was expected to announce a new election date today. Commission sources have said the polling would be held about the second week of February, but the panel delayed its announcement by a day because the election timing is such a highly charged issue.

Opposition parties have denounced the expected postponement and warned of renewed street violence in response.

A postponement is thought to be to the government's advantage. Bhutto's popular Pakistan People's Party likely would win a substantial sympathy vote whenever the election is held, but analysts have said that could diminish somewhat once the shock of her violent death Thursday has subsided.

Musharraf is to address the nation today, hours after the commission makes public the voting timetable. His ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, said it had no motive to delay the vote.

"We are as ready today as we were before the sad events of Dec. 27," said Tariq Azim Khan, former minister of state for information.

The government offered a reward of about $164,000 yesterday for information about Bhutto's suspected killers. Video images and still photos that have surfaced since the deadly attack show a clean-shaven gunman in sunglasses and a man wrapped in a white shawl who is believed to be the suicide bomber who detonated his explosives just after the shots were fired.

Ads placed in newspapers by the government show a blurred frame from one of the videos, together with a photograph of the bomber's severed head.

Rioting that broke out after Bhutto's assassination has died down. But Kanwar Dilshad, a spokesman for the Election Commission, said about a dozen election offices had been burned and voter records and nomination papers were destroyed during weekend unrest. He said that made it too difficult to go ahead with the election as planned.

Both Bhutto's party and the other main opposition leader, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, have said the government is exaggerating the extent of the problem posed by the loss of records.

Before her death, Bhutto had alleged that the Musharraf government intended to carry out large-scale vote rigging.

The Pakistani government has backed off earlier statements that Bhutto died from her head striking a sunroof crank as a result of the suicide blast. Immediately after the assassination, reports indicated that Bhutto had been shot.

Amid increasing public uproar over the government investigation, the Interior Ministry issued a statement yesterday saying that there was "no intention to conceal anything from the people of Pakistan."

On Monday, Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz asked people and the news media to ignore the comment made Friday night about the sunroof by Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema.

Cheema told CNN yesterday that he based his statement about the sunroof lever "on the initial investigations and the reports by the medical doctors" who treated Bhutto. He said the ministry would wait for forensic investigators to finish their report before offering any conclusions.

But the medical report - criticized by many as unprofessional and simply clinical notes - said nothing about a sunroof crank. No autopsy was performed.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Chicago Tribune contributed to this article.

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