US envoy John Negroponte said on Sunday he had urged Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to end emergency rule, warning it was "not compatible" with free and fair elections due by early January and would undermine them.
The US deputy secretary of state met General Musharraf on Saturday, the first high-level meeting of a US official with Washington's crucial ally in the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban since he imposed emergency rule on Nov 3.
"Emergency rule is not compatible with free, fair and credible elections," Negroponte told a news conference at the US embassy in Islamabad.
Negroponte said he had also called on Musharraf to release thousands of opposition figures who have been rounded up and imprisoned, and to stick to his word to quit as army chief.
"If those steps aren't taken, it will certainly undermine the government's ability to conduct satisfactory elections," he said.
Musharraf has promised elections will be held by Jan 9, and has said he is determined to remove his army uniform and be sworn in as a civilian president once a pending Supreme Court ruling on his October re-election is out.
But he has not yet said when he will end emergency rule and reinstate the suspended constitution -- moves analysts said were aimed at holding onto power.
Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless 1999 coup, has defended his decision to declare emergency rule, saying Pakistan's nuclear weapons will not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands while the military is in control of them.
Musharraf said in a BBC interview broadcast on Saturday that if elections were held in a "disturbed environment", it could bring in dangerous elements who might endanger Pakistan's "strategic assets".
"They cannot fall into the wrong hands, if we manage ourselves politically. The military is there -- as long as the military is there, nothing happens to the strategic assets, we are in charge and nobody does anything with them," he said.
Separately, the New York Times reported in its Sunday edition that President George W Bush's administration had spend almost $100 million over the past six years on a classified programme to help Musharraf safeguard Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
Negroponte called on Musharraf to keep promises he has made to remove his army uniform and to hold free and fair elections.
"We welcome President Musharraf's announcement that elections will take place in January, a commitment he repeated to me yesterday in categorical terms. He also repeated his commitment to retire from his army post before commencing his second presidential term, and we urge him to do so as soon as possible.
"Recent political actions against protesters, suppression of the media and the arrests of political and human rights leaders, runs directly counter to reforms that have been undertaken in recent years... I've urged the government of Pakistan to stop such actions, to lift the state of emergency and release all political detainees."
Negroponte said reconciliation between moderate political forces -- apparently referring to a public rift between Musharraf and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto -- was "very desirable".
"Engagement and dialogue, not brinksmanship and confrontation, should be the order of the day for all parties.
The United States had hoped the pair, seen as supportive of its war on terrorism, would end up sharing power after the election, but Bhutto has ruled out working with Musharraf.
(Editing by Zeeshan Haider and John Chalmers)