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Crisis hit Pakistan coalition to meet

ISLAMABAD, August 22 – Pakistan’s shaky ruling coalition was set for a make-or-break meeting on Friday, a day after a double suicide bombing killed 64 people and underscored the government’s struggle with extremism.

The feuding coalition was set to meet on the choice of president to replace Pervez Musharraf after he stood down on Monday and on the thorny issue of the reinstatement of judges sacked by the general last year.

The parties of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, which lead the coalition, were able to agree on impeachment charges that forced Musharraf out of office.

However, since then Sharif has been pressing for the immediate restoration of the judiciary, with talks between coalition members on Tuesday ending without agreement.

Former prime minister Sharif then threatened to quit the alliance if the judiciary is not restored.

"Coalition leaders are expected to meet Friday. The talks will focus on the the judges issue," Siddiqul Farooq, a spokesman for Sharif’s party, told AFP.

Elected in February, the coalition has failed to find solutions to Pakistan’s economic crisis and to the battle against Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants in its northwestern tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

In the second bombing since key US ally Musharraf resigned, two suicide bombers blew themselves up Thursday among workers leaving at the end of their shift in Pakistan’s main defence industry factory in Wah, near Islamabad.

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Taliban rebels claimed responsibility for the blasts, which left charred bodies and debris outside the huge complex, and warned that there would be more if the government does not stop its military operations in the tribal areas.

Premier Yousuf Raza Gilani pledged to bring the culprits to justice, but his government’s initial attempts to negotiate with the militants have worried nuclear-armed Pakistan’s western allies.

The ruling coalition’s earlier wranglings over what to do about Musharraf and the fate of the around 60 judges who want their jobs back has distracted it from addressing the militant threat.

Musharraf sacked the supreme court judges during a state of emergency in November to prevent them from scuttling his re-election to another five years as president.

Sharif spokesman Farooq said that at the talks on Friday two junior coalition members, ethnic Pashtun leader Asfandyar Wali Khan and hardline Islamist Maulana Fazlur Rehman, "were to give their suggestion on the judges issue."

A senior member of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N party, Ishaq Dar, told reporters late Thursday "they (Rehman and Wali) are mediating and we hope they will come up with a solution."

Another coalition source said the leaders will also discuss who should be the new president after Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party proposed that her widower Asif Ali Zardari be Musharraf’s successor.

The possibility of a coalition split has worried the United States and other countries who want a stable Pakistan.

There was however widespread support for Islamabad from world leaders after Thursday’s attack, with UN chief Ban Ki-moon slamming the bombings as "reprehensible acts of terrorism".

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US President George W. Bush had "expressed his sympathies" to Gilani, the White House said.

"The president and prime minister reaffirmed their mutual support for going after these extremists that are a threat to both Pakistan, the United States and the entire world," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

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