Former Pakistani premier Benazir Bhutto said on Sunday that President Pervez Musharraf's move to declare emergency rule would only encourage extremists and give them "a new lease of life."
She hurriedly returned Saturday to Karachi from a family stay in Dubai as Musharraf declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution and fired the nation's top judge.
The two-time premier had been in talks with military ruler Musharraf for a power-sharing deal ahead of general elections scheduled for January, but any pact now looks unlikely.
"This is not emergency, this is martial law and the people of Pakistan will protest against it," she told a news conference at Bilawal House, her home in this southern port city.
"I have come back to encourage my people and to consult party colleagues on future course of action. Free and fair elections should be held on time, but this cannot be expected in a dictatorship."
In a televised address to the nation late Saturday, Musharraf cited Islamic extremism and judicial interference for his action, saying terrorism was at a peak and accusing the Supreme Court of hamstringing the government.
He has been at loggerheads for months with the top court, which was due to rule shortly on the legality of his victory in an October 6 election.
Bhutto, whose Pakistan People's Party is the largest party in the country, had only returned here on October 18 after eight years of self-exile.
It followed talks with Musharraf which the United States has been pressing as a way of securing a transition to civilian rule while shoring up the fight against Al-Qaeda and Taliban extremism.
"We wanted a political solution and to bring the country from dictatorship to democracy but there has not been any response from the other side," Bhutto told reporters.
"The purpose of dialogue with Musharraf was to bring the country back to a democratic path," she said.
Speaking early Sunday on CNN, Bhutto -- whose October 18 homecoming parade was struck in a suicide attack that killed 139 people -- said she agreed with Musharraf about the extent of the threat from extremists.
"There is a real threat of a takeover by radical Islamist elements who have grown in strength and stature in the last five years," she said.
"So there is a collapse of internal security and unless we can restore the authority of government I am afraid things will get worse."
Bhutto added: "I agree totally with General Musharraf that Pakistan is on the verge of destabilisation. I agree with the diagnosis but I don't agree the cure.
"General Musharraf has given supporters and sympathisers in the regime of the militants a new lease of life. He has extended their tenure."
Bhutto said there were no meetings planned with Musharraf "but if he does want to meet me I will certainly meet him and tell him it is very important to restore the constitution, restore the rule of law, release political prisoners and to reverse the steps that have been taken."
The 54-year-old opposition leader called for the international community to pressure Musharraf into reversing his decision, saying she believed he wanted to delay January's elections.
"It's a very difficult situation for the country," she told Britain's Sky News television via telephone from Pakistan. "Instead of moving to democracy, we are going backwards towards greater dictatorship."