Rice presses Musharraf to ensure free Pakistan vote

DAVOS, Switzerland Wed Jan 23, 2008 2:12pm EST

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DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday pressed Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf to hold free and fair elections next month.

Rice met Musharraf on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, their first meeting since the assassination on December 27 of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and since emergency restrictions were imposed by the close U.S. ally.

"They talked about the current situation and the importance of the coming elections, and that they need to be free and fair," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

"Pakistani people need to have confidence in their elections," he said.

The February 18 poll is meant to complete a transition to civilian rule in Pakistan.

Musharraf, who took power in a military coup in 1999, imposed emergency rule in November. Limits on civil rights remain in effect despite a formal end to the crackdown last month.

Musharraf began a trip to Europe this week by urging the West not to set unrealistic standards on human rights and democracy and calling Western preoccupation with the issues "obsessive".

The Bush administration has been under strong pressure from the U.S. Congress to cut aid to Pakistan, or at least impose restrictions linking democratic reform to funding levels.

But Rice told reporters traveling with her there were no plans to cut back on aid, adding that Musharraf was a very important U.S. ally in fighting terrorism and the United States valued its relationship with Pakistan.

Washington has given nuclear-armed Pakistan about $10 billion in aid since 2001, when Islamabad dropped support for the Taliban movement in Afghanistan and joined the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism after the September 11 attacks on the United States.

U.S. officials have grown increasingly concerned about instability in western Pakistan, which they say has become a haven for Taliban and al Qaeda leaders.

(Reporting by Sue Pleming; Editing by Charles Dick)

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