Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto accused President Pervez Musharraf of failing to stop the spread of Islamic militants and promised to crack down on the groups if she wins next month's parliamentary election.
Bhutto spoke Tuesday to about 4,000 supporters in the central city of Lodhran as the campaign for the Jan. 8 vote intensified. The election is seen as crucial to restoring democracy after a six-week state of emergency accompanied by a crackdown on the independent judiciary and perceived government opponents.
The election will also have deep implications for the future of former army chief Musharraf's administration, which is seen as a key U.S. ally in the war on terror.
Bhutto, a former prime minister who returned from exile to lead her opposition party in the poll, said extremism and terror flourished across the country since Musharraf seized power eight years ago in a military coup.
"The areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan became a haven for extremists, and the extremism and terrorism is flowing down into other areas," she said.
If elected, her party would clear the extremists from Pakistan, she said.
Despite government operations against militants, Taliban and al-Qaida fighters have recently extended their influence in the northwest and launched numerous suicide attacks in the country.
On Friday, a suicide bomber killed 56 people as they prayed in a mosque in northwestern Pakistan. Two days later, a suicide attacker killed nine people in an attack on a military convoy in the northwestern Swat region.
The Tehrik-i-Taliban, a new coalition of Islamic militants committed to holy war against the government, said Monday it was behind the bombing. It demanded the military end its operations in Swat _ where the military says it has killed about 300 militants since last month _ and withdraw from the northwest.
In her campaign speech, Bhutto said _ under a slogan of "Food, Clothing and Shelter" _ her party would give people better health, education and job opportunities.
"We want to see Pakistan be a modern, progressive and prosperous state, where people should enjoy a good life and better living," she said.
Nawaz Sharif, another former premier who returned from exile for the campaign, also railed against Musharraf at a rally of more than 5,000 people in the southern city of Rahim Yar Khan. He said Musharraf's dictatorial rule embarrassed the country, and he accused the ruling party of destroying the economy.
"Pervez Musharraf's government made the people's lives miserable. They cannot buy bread for their families due to extreme price hikes and inflation," said Sharif, who is banned from running for office but was campaigning on behalf of his party's candidates.