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Pakistani leader faces heckling

Opposition disrupts speech to legislators

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- President Pervez Musharraf recently faced two assassination attempts and launched a historic peace process with nuclear-armed rival India, but opposition lawmakers offered no praise yesterday during his first-ever speech to Parliament, heckling him as a military dictator and demanding he resign.

The noisy disruption highlighted deep-seated resentment at the military's persistent involvement in politics and blunted Musharraf's efforts to portray himself as a legitimate ruler since the general seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999.

Opposition members chanted "friends of dictators are traitors" throughout his 40-minute, nationally televised speech. Musharraf supporters countered by thumping tables in applause, at times making it difficult to hear him.

Meanwhile, two domestic flights were diverted, preventing at least three opposition legislators from attending the speech. Officials gave conflicting reasons for the diversions.

Security was extremely tight at Parliament, with armored personnel carriers patrolling, after the two attempts on the president's life last month. The two bombings were attributed to Islamic militants who despise the president for allying Pakistan to the United States in the war on terror.

In his speech, Musharraf spoke of the needs to crush terrorism, to keep Pakistan's nuclear weapons secure, and to prevent proliferation of atomic arms. He also urged a resolution of the longstanding conflict with India over the divided territory of Kashmir.

"A few people are committing the curse of extremism in our society . . . who want to impose their narrow-minded ideas on others," Musharraf told the special joint session of Parliament.

The address capped a highly charged two weeks. Musharraf struck a deal with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of India to start talks on the Kashmir standoff; the military has stepped up operations in tribal borderlands to hunt down Al Qaeda fugitives; and a car bombing injured 15 people outside a church in the southern city of Karachi.

Amid accusations that Pakistani nuclear technology has proliferated to Iran, Libya, and North Korea, Musharraf promised to strengthen Pakistan's deterrent while stressing the need to "assure the world that we are a responsible nation and will not let nuclear weapons spread."

Musharraf, swapping his army uniform for a traditional white jacket, concluded his speech with a salute and punched his fists in the air.

The opposition appeared less upset by anything Musharraf said than his presence in the seat of Pakistan's embattled democracy.

Three weeks ago, the president hatched a deal with hard-line, pro-Taliban groups that led to votes of confidence in his rule in Parliament and the four regional assemblies. Under the deal, Musharraf will quit his post as army chief at the end of this year, but remains as president until 2007.

"The democratic opposition demonstrated in full force, and strongly, that an intruder and a stranger had entered the Parliament building, that a serving general of the army cannot be an elected president at the same time," said opposition Senator Farhatulalh Babar.

Babar also urged an investigation into what he claimed was a "hijacking by the regime" when the two flights to Islamabad were diverted. An airline official, Imran Gardezi, laid the diversions to an airport bomb scare. But Information Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmed cited "technical reasons."The president remains deeply unpopular among partisans of former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, both of whom are in exile. Musharraf overthrew Sharif's government in 1999 and dismissed Parliament.

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