Voter turnout low in southwest Pakistan, fears of attack high

QUETTA, Pakistan (AFP) - Voter turnout for Pakistan's historic elections was low in the country's troubled southwest on Saturday, where fears of attack were high and security forces guarded polling stations.

Voters were subject to strict body searches by police and turnout appeared not to pick up, even after midday in Quetta, the capital of the oil- and gas-rich Balochistan province bordering Iran and Afghanistan, an AFP reporter said.

More women voters arrived as the day wore on but there was little enthusiasm. An AFP reporter saw queues of dozens rather than hundreds of people outside Quetta polling stations.

College student Hajra Wajahat, voting for the first time, said she wanted peace in her city, which has been rocked by sectarian killings, a separatist Baloch insurgency and Islamist militant violence.

"I want people to vote to restore peace in Quetta. We have seen dead bodies of hundreds of people shot dead in targeted killings during the last 10 years.

"Security is our major problem. There are many areas where we cannot even go because of security fears. This problem should come to an end and I want my people to move freely," she said.

A direct threat from the Taleban against the main secular parties in the outgoing federal government curtailed public rallies before the polls and heightened fears of violence on election day.

Turnout, however, was higher in Quetta's Shi'ite-dominated Hazara Town.

Ethnic Hazaras, who are members of Pakistan's Shi'ite Muslim minority, were earlier this year the target of two devastating bombings in Quetta that killed nearly 200 people.

Police and security forces cordoned off the neighbourhood as Hazaras came out to vote.

"People are scared and we have to convince them to come out of their houses to vote," said Ms Qudsia Hussain, whose husband is running for the national and provincial Balochistan assemblies for the Hazara Democratic party.