LONDON (AFP) — Prime Minister Gordon Brown told Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Monday that next month's elections had to be credible, insisting the country's stability was vital for South Asia.
Brown's call came as demonstrators staged angry protests against Musharraf's visit to London, at the end of a week-long trip to Europe aimed at reassuring leaders about the transparency of the delayed February 18 vote.
"Credible elections" were "essential", Brown said at a joint news conference following what he called "very productive" talks with a "key ally" in combating terrorism and extremism.
"I urged President Musharraf to engage with all political parties in Pakistan for a peaceful, democratic future for the country," he said at his Downing Street office.
"A stable Pakistan is essential for the security of the South Asia region."
Musharraf had assured him that processes were in place to ensure transparent polling, Brown said.
The world's priority had to be ensuring "that the democratic process remains on track", he added.
Musharraf voiced a "strong desire" to hold the parliamentary elections, postponed in the wake of the December 27 assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
"I am very sure that we will have a peaceful transition and we will have a strong democratic government following the February 18 election," he added.
The Guardian daily in its Tuesday edition said that it did not doubt Musharraf's sincerity, but the issue was "whether he is truly in touch with what is happening in his country."
"Mr Musharraf conflates his destiny with Pakistan's. The two are synonymous in his eyes. He may have shed his military uniform but not his belief that he is the ultimate arbiter of order.
"He claims the elections will be free and fair and that he will work with whoever is able to form the next government. We shall see.
"Pakistan is in the eye of the storm."
Outside, some 400 anti-Musharraf protestors, including opposition leader Imran Khan and his ex-wife Jemima, disagreed as they angrily demonstrated about Musharraf's presence.
As a far smaller number of Musharraf supporters cheered, opponents booed and waved their fists as his motorcade arrived.
Former Pakistan cricket captain Khan said Brown and US President George W. Bush should demand the reinstatement of judges sacked by Musharraf, insisting free and fair elections were otherwise impossible.
"This is the time for the international community to move in and insist on it," Khan told AFP.
"If they allow this fraud to continue, it will create more problems in Pakistan and turmoil. Rigged elections will probably devastate Pakistan far more than Kenya."
British socialite Jemima Khan said she did not believe Musharraf's constantly repeated assurances that the elections would be free, fair and transparent.
"The elections coming up are going to be rigged. There is no democracy in Pakistan," she said at the gates of Downing Street before delivering a petition.
She told AFP Brown's welcoming of Musharraf was "appalling", adding: "You can't have one rule for one dictator and one rule for another."
Musharraf rejected claims that his government was losing the battle against extremists, just after the release of some 250 schoolchildren who were taken hostage in lawless north-west Pakistan.
He described that incident as "a desperate act, maybe to take away attention from the military operation outside", adding: "We will keep going strong on the side of acting against the terrorists."
On the wider fight against extremism, he said Pakistani efforts to tighten up the notoriously porous border with Afghanistan had seen a 42 percent reduction in cross-border movements of militants.
But he repeated that the fight would be drawn out and needed multilateral support.
"The battle is long and we will persevere with this. It may take a long time and the perseverance has to be on both sides, on the Afghan side and the Pakistan side. Winning on one side will not be enough," he told reporters.
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