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ISLAMABAD, Dec 30: President Gen Pervez Musharraf declared on Thursday that he would retain the office of the army chief till 2007 because any change at this stage could prove 'dangerous' for the country.

"At this crucial juncture, the country cannot afford any change in the internal and external policies and this is the major reason behind my decision to continue retaining the office of the army chief," the president said.

Addressing the nation over radio and television, President Musharraf claimed he had been allowed by parliament to keep both the offices. "I just cannot violate the constitution that now allows me to retain both offices," he said.

The president enumerated various reasons for his decision to continue donning both hats. "One of the most important issues is to ensure harmony in the military and bureaucracy and to see that the current political system was moving in the right direction, therefore I decide that I would not shed my military uniform," he added.

The president advised the opposition to accept the rule of the majority and said that nowhere in the world minority could dictate terms to the majority. Continuity in political and economic policies, he pointed out, was important and said that both the government and parliament should complete their terms.

The president underlined the importance of continuity in internal and external policies, forward movement in dialogue with India for the solution of the Kashmir issue, tackling extremism and terrorism, security and safeguarding vital national interests and harmony among political, bureaucratic and military institutions.

President Musharraf said he had proposed last year that he would quit his army post by December 2004. But, he regretted, since the MMA did not keep his promises he was not bound to oblige anyone over the issue of the military uniform.

"Yes I had said that I would voluntarily relinquish the charge of the office of the chief of the army staff with certain hopes and expectations, although there is no mention of leaving the army office in either the government-MMA accord or the 17th Amendment," he added.

The president said that after the passage of the 17th Amendment, it was expected that the opposition would shun its policy of confrontation and follow the path of serious politics and the elected government would be allowed to complete its five-year tenure, the political system would function smoothly and national security and sovereignty would be strengthened.

He said it was unfortunate that after one year, the MMA deviated from its promises several times. The attitude of the opposition had gone from bad to worse and they were involved in undemocratic activities, including imposition of their will over the majority, he added.

This, he stressed, was against the spirit of democracy and democratic traditions. Moreover, the opposition had been threatening the democratic process itself for which the removal of uniform was the first step after which they would be taking further action, he added.

"Uniform is not an issue for the people, but the opposition wants to exploit this issue for its own benefit." He said continuity in foreign policy was necessary because of rapid developments taking place internationally and regionally, including the situation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and in 'our neighbourhood'.

He said that elected members had been empowered by giving them the right to vote according to their conscience after the removal of the 14th amendment. He said even the opposition had been empowered by giving representation to the leader of the opposition in the National Security Council along with the president, the prime minister and the services chiefs.

He said media had also been empowered by giving it an unprecedented freedom. Dozens of channels are operating in the private sector. "This is the real essence of democracy which we are establishing in Pakistan," the president asserted.

Gen Musharraf said he fulfilled all promises that he had made to the people, including devolution of power and the holding of free and fair elections in 2002, which was evident from the strong opposition that had been elected, despite proposals made by certain quarters that after the events of 9/11 he should try to get an extension from the Supreme Court beyond three years.

He said he created history by voluntary transferring executive powers to an elected prime minister for the first time in Pakistan. The president reaffirmed that parliament and the government would complete their tenure, the process for local government elections would commence in April, fight against terrorism would continue, the writ of the government would be further strengthened and all mega development projects would be completed.

Talking about Pakistan-India relations, Gen Musharraf expressed hopes that the Kashmir issue would be resolved with the active involvement of the Kashmiris. "We want improvement in relations with India on the basis of sovereign equality," he said, reiterating that Pakistan would not unilaterally show flexibility to resolve the 57-year-old Kashmir dispute.

He also declared that the country's nuclear and missile programme would be strengthened. The president said that macroeconomic indicators were improving and Pakistan was likely to achieve a 6.5 per cent GDP growth rate. This growth, he said, was expected to be eight per cent within a few years.

Gen Musharraf admitted that there was poverty in Pakistan, but said nobody had a magic wand to eliminate the menace. He said since 15-18 mega development projects were being completed, a lot of new jobs were expected be offered to the people to alleviate poverty.

He said that media today was enjoying all freedom as more and more television channels were coming up in a big way. "So far, I have fulfilled all my promises made with the nation, including holding elections within the timeframe and transferring power to the elected representatives as per the ruling of the Supreme Court."

The president ended his speech by saying that 97 per cent Pakistanis were good Muslims and did not need to be forced to opt for religious extremism. The year 2005, he said, would see more and more people opting for enlightened moderation with a view to making Pakistan further strong in all fields.