Private Pakistani television channels reported on Wednesday that President Pervez Musharraf was preparing to declare a state of emergency imminently, but government spokesmen denied there were any such plans.
State-run Pakistan Television quoted official sources as saying the reports were baseless and Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani denied to Reuters that a meeting had been held to discuss the imposition of an emergency, as rumors swept the country.
A member of the inner circle of the Pakistani leadership told Reuters, however, that US ally Musharraf was considering the option, which could allow him to extend the tenure of the national and provincial assemblies by 12 months and delay elections due by the turn of the year.
The government could explain such a step by citing growing insecurity because of the threat posed by Islamist militants allied to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda after a series of attacks, many of them by suicide bombers, in the past month.
Political analysts and opposition leaders, however, have feared that Musharraf, who is going through his weakest period since coming to power in a 1999 coup, might resort to an emergency because of difficulties he faces in getting re-elected by the sitting assemblies, while still army chief.
"Both internal and external threats are such that you cannot rule out anything. At the moment there is no emergency. We have said that options are available with the government," Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan told Geo TV, one of the channels reporting that the measure would be announced soon.
The United States has put Musharraf under pressure to act against Al- Qaeda nests in hostile tribal regions on the Afghan border, such as North Waziristan.
Western countries with troops in Afghanistan are sensitive to any instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan, whose help is crucial to fighting the Taliban insurgency and in counter-terrorism operations against Al- Qaeda.
A not-so-secret meeting in Abu Dhabi in late July with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, leader of the largest opposition party, to try to agree terms for power sharing was indicative of how desperate Musharraf's position had become.
Musharraf wants to be re-elected in uniform between mid-September and mid-October before national and provincial assemblies are dissolved for parliamentary elections due in December or January.
Although Musharraf can command the simple majority needed to win re-election in the assemblies, he is likely to face multiple constitutional challenges.
The Supreme Court's decision on July 20 to reinstate a chief justice Musharraf had spent four months trying to sack heightened expectations that those challenges could well be upheld.
Musharraf would need a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly to change the constitution, and avoid challenges in the Supreme Court, but for that he would need Bhutto's help.
She wants Musharraf to quit the army and guarantee free and fair elections before she will countenance any deal.