BRUSSELS, Jan 21: Fielding tough questions on upcoming elections, curbs on media freedom and his failure to rein in religious militants, President Pervez Musharraf on Monday vowed to hold free and peaceful parliamentary polls next month but insisted that Western governments must understand Pakistan’s difficult political environment and stop their ‘obsession’ with democracy and human rights in the country.

In a 70-minute question and answer session with international reporters, think-tanks and Belgian business leaders, he said that Pakistan’s nuclear assets were in safe military custody, that Pakistan would not allow foreign forces to enter its territory in pursuit of terrorists and that Pakistan army had Al Qaeda “on the run”.

The president said that Pakistan faced increased levels of terrorism and Talibanisation of society besides being impacted by events in Afghanistan and the same people were spreading obscurantism in both countries.

He met the European Union’s foreign policy chief Javier Solana as well as Belgium’s caretaker Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

He also addressed a joint meeting of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee and the assembly’s South Asia delegation. A brief meeting with EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner is scheduled in Paris on Tuesday.

Facing probing questions from international and Pakistani reporters, the president acknowledged that 2007 had been an extremely turbulent year for the country. However, the economy remained on an upsurge, he insisted. In response to a query from a foreign company executive about security in the country, President Musharraf said that foreign nationals were not being targeted by militants.

Explaining reasons for his European tour, Mr Musharraf said he wanted to remove “misunderstandings and misperceptions” about the situation in Pakistan. Interestingly, however, he then proceeded to paint a bleak picture of a country whose citizens were “despondent and demoralised”, where extremists were on the rise and where politics was plagued by feudals and tribals.

Although there was no question on the judiciary, the president lashed out against the former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, denouncing him as an “inept and corrupt” man who was working to “incapacitate” the government and the parliament.

The Pakistani media also came in for its share of blame for fuelling “negative perceptions” and for increasing societal and political tensions. Asked about curbs on press freedoms by the International Federation of journalists, the president flatly denied that the press was under restriction. “There are no limits on the freedom of the press,” he said.

Similarly, a question about the role of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) in supporting extremists was shrugged off with comments that the security service was under total government control.

“The ISI is doing exactly what the government wants it to,” the president said.

However, as evidenced at the encounter with the press, Mr Musharraf faces an uphill battle to clean up his image – further tarnished following the murder of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Neither the press nor Nato or EU policy makers have any illusions about the complex realities in Pakistan and Mr Musharraf’s patchy democratic credentials. They are also increasingly worried about his government’s failure to combat terrorism and militancy across the country.

Several members of the European Parliament for instance blocked plans for him to address a formal session of the assembly’s influential foreign affairs committee. Instead, Mr Musharraf spoke to an informal gathering of parliamentarians.

Similarly, he did not address the decision-making North Atlantic Council, an honour granted to most visiting foreign leaders. Instead, he held one-to-one talks with Nato Secretary General Scheffer.

The message in Brussels was therefore that given the importance of Pakistan in the fight against global terrorism, especially in stabilising Afghanistan, it is not in the interest of Europe or Nato to isolate Mr Musharraf. But the dialogue comes with conditions.

First and foremost, European policymakers are demanding that next month’s elections must be free, fair and transparent and that the president must work harder to ensure a rapid transition to a legitimate civilian government. The EU does not like military rulers – even those that have discarded their uniform. And the 27-nation bloc is increasingly convinced that stability in Pakistan requires a return to democracy and an end to the military’s dominant role in the country.

Having sent up to 100 election monitors to Pakistan, the EU has a special stake in ensuring that the polls are not rigged – and that security is ensured for voters.

Secondly, the EU wants action to restore the independence of the judiciary and the reinstatement of top judges he removed from power last year. The EU also wants an end to all restrictions on political parties and the media – in short to ensure the rule of law in Pakistan.

Finally, the EU position is that it is time to focus on building strong Pakistani institutions rather than on political personalities. Having secured peaceful democratic change in former communist eastern Europe, the EU is well-placed to help Pakistan in reforming and modernising political institutions, including political parties, fighting corruption and promoting good governance.

Last but not least, the EU’s focus is on fighting extremism through development rather than military action alone. As such, Mr Musharraf is likely to hear more about injecting funds into under-developed areas, especially in the northern areas where there is a special need to win the hearts and minds of disaffected people.