Pakistan poll rivals fail to break deadlock in Pakis

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After being locked in talks for three days, Pakistan's two most important opposition leaders remain unable to reach agreement on a strategy for crucial parliamentary elections scheduled to take place next month.

The parties of the former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have reached agreement on more than a dozen demands that they will make of the government before deciding to contest the election but several key issues remain undecided. Chief among them, reportedly, is whether to insist that the Supreme Court justices sacked by President Pervez Musharraf when he declared a state of emergency last month, should be reinstated before or after the ballot.

"We still have to settle a couple of issues, and I'm an optimist that this will be done soon," said Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for Mr Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).

Representatives from both parties said discussions would continue to try and settle the outstanding issues but the deadlock highlights the considerable problems that the various elements of Pakistan's political opposition have in uniting, even for a cause such as challenging Mr Musharraf. A failure to reach an agreement on how best to proceed would certainly likely play out to the advantage of Mr Musharraf and his PML-Q party.

Both Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif claim Mr Musharraf's government will try to rig the vote scheduled for 8 January to select MPs. But they cannot reach agreement on what conditions they should insist upon to try and prevent cheating.

Mr Sharif, who was told last week by the country's Election Commission that he was ineligible to run in the election, has insisted that the Supreme Court judges sacked by Mr Musharraf when he proclaimed a state of emergency on November 3 be reinstated before the vote. Ms Bhutto has said she would prefer to reinstate them after the elections. "We both are concerned that the elections seem to be unfair and we like to set some benchmarks to demonstrate what is fairness," Ms Bhutto told reporters as she left Pakistan for what she said would be a brief visit to Dubai where she has a home.

To the criticism of some opposition politicians, such as former the cricketer Imran Khan, who have called for a boycott of the elections, Ms Bhutto has said her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) intends to take part in the ballot. Mr Sharif has previously indicated that he would boycott the proceedings if there was an agreement to do so.

On the other hand, neither Ms Bhutto and M.r Sharif previously bitter rivals would want to boycott the election if the other were to take part and give him or her an easier run at securing the premiership.

Meanwhile with the state of emergency due to be lifted next week, Wajihuddin Ahmad, a retired judge who lost the presidential vote to Mr Musharraf in October, was detained after he addressed an anti-Musharraf rally in the eastern city of Gujrat. Dozens of lawyers angered by the arrest protested and clashed with police.

In a separate development, Pakistani government forces said they had retaken parts of the Swat Valley that were seized recently by militants led by the cleric Maulana Fazlullah.The army said that two towns, Matta and Khawazakhela, were taken by troops and that a village from where the cleric broadcast radio messages was also recaptured.

The army claimed that 250 pro-Taliban militants had been killed since troops launched an operation to recapture the Swat valley two weeks ago.