ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's government urged opposition leaders Tuesday to refrain from holding rallies ahead of next month's elections, citing an escalating terrorist threat.
The party of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif quickly rejected the recommendation, accusing officials of trying block its campaign against President Pervez Musharraf.
The political squabble comes in the aftermath of the Dec. 27 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, whose Pakistan Peoples Party is expected by many to emerge as the largest in parliament after the Feb. 18 elections.
Musharraf came under heavy criticism for alleged security lapses that allowed suspected Islamic militants to launch a gun and suicide bomb attack on former prime minister Bhutto as she left a campaign rally. It was one in a wave of more than 20 suicide bombings to hit Pakistan in the past three months.
In apparent response to the accusations, the Interior Ministry on Tuesday issued guidelines to political leaders "for their safety and security." These included recommendations to heed the advice of local police commanders on security matters and to keep authorities informed of their movements.
"It is of paramount importance that the political leadership is sensitized about the looming threat and asked to adopt a security conscious approach," Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said. "Big rallies should be avoided as much as possible."
Large political rallies have traditionally been the main method to drum up support during election campaigns. Opposition groups say Musharraf's own party is unable to exploit this because of its declining popularity after it supported his purging of the judiciary and failed to contain skyrocketing food prices.
Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League party denounced the government's guidelines. Party spokesman Ahsan Iqbal accused authorities of "playing with terrorist threat to stop opposition parties from reaching out to the people."
"This is a failure of Pervez Musharraf. If he resigns, the law and order situation will become normal," Iqbal said. "This is intended only to stop the opposition from campaigning."
The United States hopes the elections will stabilize Pakistan, a key ally in the war against the Taliban and al-Qaida in neighboring Afghanistan. But militant violence in Pakistan's border regions _ where support for the Taliban remains strong _ has spread to the entire nation, seriously undermining public support for the president.
Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his top deputy are believed to be hiding out somewhere in the lawless tribal region straddling the Pakistan-Afghan border.
Also Tuesday, a suicide bomber blew himself up when troops opened fire as he drove a car toward a checkpoint in Mohmand, a tribal region close to the Afghan border where a clash the previous day left 30 dead, an army statement said. A second militant in the car was killed by gunfire.
On Monday night, a bomb explosion near a textile factory in the country's largest city, Karachi, killed 10 people and wounded 52.
In a related development, three militants were found guilty Tuesday of plotting to kill Musharraf by setting off a car bomb near his convoy in Karachi in 2002. Judges said the car did not explode because the remote control device used to detonate it malfunctioned, according to state prosecutor Naimat Randhawa.
The three were from the outlawed Harkatul Mujahideen Al-Almi militant group, which police have blamed for a 2002 bombing at the U.S. consulate in Karachi that killed 14 people.
Musharraf has survived at least three attempts on his life.
Associated Press writer Ashraf Khan in Karachi.