President Pervez Musharraf promised on Thursday to lift Pakistan's State of Emergency on December 16, making a long-awaited gesture of reconciliation hours after being sworn in as a civilian leader.
Addressing the nuclear-armed nation on state television, Musharraf said he would also restore the constitution that was suspended when he declared emergency rule on November 3.
"I have full resolve to lift the Emergency and withdraw the PCO on December 16," Musharraf said, referring to the provisional constitutional order. He said the decision was being taken because the overall situation in the country had improved since the emergency was declared, with successes against Islamic militants and a democratic transition to January 8 elections underway.
"But I hope no obstacles will be created to destabilise the process as was done in the past," he cautioned, saying opposition leaders Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif had been provided "a level playing field."
Musharraf's announcement came a day after he bowed to fierce international pressure and stepped down from the army that had propelled him to power in a bloodless coup in 1999.
He declared the state of emergency citing growing militancy and a hostile judiciary, although critics charge that he wanted to rid the Supreme Court of judges he feared would invalidate his October 6 re-election.
"I am happy and proud that due to these steps the country has come back on the path of democracy," he said in his address, speaking solemnly against a blue background.
The White House earlier urged Musharraf to lift the emergency "as soon as possible" to pave the way for free and fair general elections in January. US President George W Bush "would like to see this emergency order lifted as soon as possible so they can get back to the path to democracy," spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
Yet Musharraf had set a defiant tone earlier on Thursday when, taking the oath for a second five-year term - and the first as a civilian - he slammed what he called the West's "unrealistic obsession" with the measure.
"We want democracy, we want human rights, we want civil liberties, but we will do it our way. We understand our society, our environment, better than anyone in the West," Musharraf said then.
He called his oath-taking "a milestone" in the transition to democracy and vowed the January 8 vote would go ahead "come hell or high water" despite the threat of a boycott by Bhutto and Sharif.
But in a sign of the deep tensions that remain, there were clashes even as he spoke in the eastern city of Lahore, where police baton-charged hundreds of lawyers protesting against his swearing-in.
Witnesses said lawyers chanting "Go, Musharraf, Go!" hurled drink bottles and stones at police. Lawyers said 12 to 15 protesters were hurt, while police said some of their officers were injured.
The oath was administered by new chief justice Abdul Hameed Dogar, who was installed in the job after Musharraf sacked the nation's previous top judge for refusing to recognise the state of emergency.
"It is indeed a historic day and emotional day for me. This is a milestone in the transition of Pakistan to a complete essence of democracy," Musharraf said in the swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace.
He extended an olive branch to Bhutto and Sharif, saying that their recent return from exile was "good for political reconciliation."
There was no immediate reaction from the opposition to the promised lifting of emergency rule.
Earlier however, Raza Rabbani, a senior official in Bhutto's party, called the swearing-in as a civilian "too little and too late," while Sharif's party said it was illegal and unconstitutional.
China, one of Pakistan's closest allies, congratulated Musharraf, saying it was confident he would be able to maintain the country's social stability and economic development.