Tens of thousands of troops and police were deployed on Thursday in "sensitive" areas across the Islamic republic of 150 million people after the first phase of the polls were marred by violence and claims of rigging a week ago.

"We will ensure law and order during polling," Information Minister Shaikh Rashid told AFP earlier. "Large scale security deployments and adequate measures have been put in place."

Violence

Although the polls are officially being held on a non-party basis to prevent violent incidents, in practice political groups have been open in their support for candidates.

"So far we have reports of 10 people killed in election-related violence," said a senior security official in Islamabad.  

About  a quarter of candidates
are women

Eight died in Punjab, the most populous of Pakistan's four provinces - two in the central city of Jhang, three in the town of Jaranwala, and one each in the provincial capital Lahore and in the towns of Muridke and Jhelum.

Another two people died in Kohistan, a remote mountainous district in North West Frontier Province, he added.

At least 20 people were killed and more than 700 injured in the first round of the polls on 18 August.

Popularity test

The elections are being seen not only as a test of President Pervez Musharraf's attempt to sideline hardline Islamic parties, but also as a yardstick of his popularity ahead of national polls due in October 2007.

Parties loyal to military ruler Pervez Musharraf have claimed victory in last week's round of voting, but opposition groups, including the party of exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, have alleged widespread electoral fraud.

The Interior Ministry, which is responsible for security, said tens of thousands of army and paramilitary soldiers would patrol the streets alongside police to prevent violence and attempts to rig the polls.

"Security will be particularly enhanced and intensified in areas which are declared sensitive because of previous violence," a top official at the ministry said on condition of anonymity. 

The polls are part of a reform
plan brought in by Musharraf

Nearly 60,000 security personnel had been deployed to protect the southern province of Sindh alone, officials said.

"We will not allow anyone to take the law into their own hands and there are clear orders to arrest and punish those who try," said the provincial interior secretary Brigadier Ghulam Mohammad Mohatram.

Reforms

Voters in around half of Pakistan's 100 or more districts will be voting. The rest cast their ballots one week ago. There are about 25,000 women candidates out of more than 100,000 people standing.

The polls, which were last held in 2002, are part of a series of reforms brought in by Musharraf and aimed at devolving power from Islamabad by giving it to district mayors.

Musharraf and his supporters say the new system give power back to Pakistan's poverty stricken grassroots. But critics call it a way of installing Musharraf cronies at every government level, and say it increases corruption.

Analyst and writer Mohammed Afzal Niazi said the polls revealed a "paradox", in that voters were mainly worried about local issues but the results would determine how Musharraf and the political parties position themselves in 2007.