UN chief concerned by violence, communication restriction on Pakistan election day

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By Michelle Nichols and Kanishka Singh

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday expressed concern about violence in Pakistan and the suspension of mobile communications services on election day in the South Asian nation, his spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Pakistan counted votes after polling ended on Thursday in a general election marred by militant attacks and suspension of mobile phone services, with no indication of a clear leader hours after voting closed - an unusual delay compared to previous polls.

Mobile phone services were suspended early on Thursday and were being partially resumed late into the night, the Interior Ministry said late on Thursday, citing security reasons for the suspension, which was also condemned by rights groups such as Amnesty International.

The main contest was expected to be between candidates backed by jailed former prime minister Imran Khan, whose party won the last national election, and the Pakistan Muslim League of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whom analysts say is backed by the powerful military.

"As Pakistan awaits the results of the elections, the secretary-general encourages all political leaders and society segments to maintain a calm atmosphere, as well as refrain from the use of violence and any actions that could increase tensions," U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said.

"It is important for all candidates and supporters to ensure that human rights and the rule of law are fully respected in the interest of the Pakistani people and (to) resolve any disputes that might arise through established legal procedures," the spokesperson added.

Earlier this week, the U.N. human rights office denounced violence against political parties and candidates in the lead-up to Thursday's vote.

It particularly voiced concern over the "pattern of harassment, arrests and prolonged detentions of leaders and supporters" of Khan's Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) party.

Multiple legal cases have been brought against Khan, which disqualified him as a candidate and sentenced him to long prison terms. He denies wrongdoing. Khan was ousted in 2022 after falling out with the country's powerful military, which denies meddling in politics.

Thousands of troops were deployed on the streets in Pakistan and at polling stations across the country.

Despite the heightened security, nine people, including two children, were killed on Thursday in bomb blasts, grenade attacks and shootings.

At least another 26 were killed on Wednesday in two explosions near electoral candidates' offices in the southwestern province of Balochistan. Islamic State later claimed responsibility for those attacks.

Earlier on Thursday, the U.S. State Department also said it was concerned about steps taken to "restrict freedom of expression" in Pakistan, especially related to phone and internet access.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; writing by Kanishka Singh; editing by Sandra Maler and Lincoln Feast.)