Speaking to representatives of Belgium's Pakistani community on the eve of his visit to Brussels on Monday, Musharraf vowed that the election would be democratic.

   

"There will be free and transparent elections," he pledged at the meeting in a Brussels hotel.

   

Fears for nuclear-armed Pakistan's stability were aggravated by the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in a bomb and gun attack on December 27.

 

A surge of attacks by al Qaeda-linked groups based on the Afghan border has raised concern about prospects for the country and its efforts to support NATO and US forces struggling to subdue Taliban in Afghanistan.

 

'Establishing credentials'

        

Ahead of the trip, Tanvir Ahmed Khan, Pakistan's former foreign secretary, said he expected Musharraf to seek to impress on Europeans that he was Pakistan's best hope of stability.

 

Khan said: "He's trying to establish his credentials with the key Western powers with the same old message: that he's indispensable, they don't have a better friend than him, without him the 'war on terror' would unravel and Pakistan's economic progress would collapse."

 

 usharraf will meet Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian prime minister Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the Nato secretary-general, in Brussels.

   

He will go on to Paris to meet Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president and then attend the World Economic Forum in Switzerland before talks in London with Gordon Brown, the British prime minister.

   

While Musharraf may get the backing he seeks from European leaders, the former army chief who seized power in a 1999 coup can also expect them to tell him that he must do more to promote democracy and curb the activity of militants.