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Elections

Pakistan heads to the polls despite pre-election violence

Voters are braving a campaign of violence by the Taliban in Pakistan as they head to the polls. A bomb attack in northwest Pakistan killed three people, injuring many more, a day before the polls opened.

Polling stations opened at 8:00 local time (3:00 GMT) on Saturday to welcome millions of expected voters. The election marks the first time a civilian Pakistani government will transfer power to an elected successor.

The pre-election campaign has been marred by repeated Taliban attacks aimed mostly at liberal secular parties that have supported military action against the militants.

More than 600,000 security personnel have been deployed to guard 70,000 polling stations, half of which are considered to be at risk of attack.

The violence ran right up to the eve of the election, with a bomb exploding in the main bazaar of Miranshah, the major town in the North Waziristan district, on Friday.

Bombers claim three lives

Witnesses and medical officials said that, along with the three fatalities, 15 people had been taken to hospital, some in a serious condition, following Friday's bomb attack.

A security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a motorbike had been rigged with explosives and detonated, adding that most of the victims had been passengers on a passing bus.

It is understood that political candidates had offices near to the scene. While no-one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing, the Taliban - who consider the election to be un-Islamic - have carried out previous attacks in an effort to undermine the polls.

At least five people were also injured by a low-intensity bomb on the roof of Pakistan People's Party (PPP) offices in the city of Quetta early on Friday, police said.

More than 120 people have been killed in election-related violence since the beginning of April.

Threats to secular parties

Specifically, the Pakistani Taliban have threatened the secular-leaning PPP and its principal coalition partners, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Awami National Party (ANP).

Police said on Thursday that Ali Haider Gilani, a son of former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, had been kidnapped in the southern Punjab province.

The younger Gilani, a candidate for the secular PPP in Saturday's election, was kidnapped by armed gunmen at a rally in the city of Multan on Thursday. The gunmen killed Gilani's secretary and one of his bodyguards, wounding four other people.

The frontrunner in the elections is former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is head of the center-right Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N).

Final rallies ahead of vote

Along with other party leaders, he made his final appeal for votes on Thursday, the last day of campaigning. "If you give us five years, you will see that we can change the fate of this country," he told a crowd in the city of Lahore.

Former cricket legend turned politician Imran Khan addressed supporters in Islamabad from his hospital bed, after a fall during his campaign that left him with hairline skull fractures and fractured vertebrae.

"God will not take me from this world until a new Pakistan is built," said Khan, whose Pakistani Movement for Justice (PTI) has enjoyed a late surge in popularity.

The ruling PPP, which has seen its popularity ebb away amid accusations of corruption, is promoting the youth of its 24-year-old chairman - Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

"Only young leadership can bring a revolution," read one of the PPP's newspaper advertisements.

More than 86 million Pakistanis are eligible to vote, with opinion polls suggesting there will be a larger turnout compared to the 44 per cent who turned out for the last elections.

rc,tm/slk (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)