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Pakistan set to ban Bhutto protest

world Updated: Nov 12, 2007 15:47 IST

AFP
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Authorities in Pakistan are set to ban a huge protest march called by opposition leader Benazir Bhutto to demand an immediate end to emergency rule, officials said on Monday.

Government officials and police were to meet to consider banning Tuesday's planned rally from Lahore to Islamabad, and senior police sources told AFP it was unlikely to be allowed.

The so-called "long march" is aimed at piling pressure on President Pervez Musharraf to end the state of emergency, which Bhutto said would make promised general elections by early January meaningless.

"There will be no long march," a senior government official in Punjab, the province which includes Lahore, told AFP under cover of anonymity.

"It will not be permitted."

Raja Basharat, Punjab's law minister, said rallies were forbidden under the state of emergency.

"It's a political decision," Lahore police chief Malik Mohammad Iqbal told AFP.

"As far as we are concerned we know the threat (of an attack on the march) is very serious. It is imminent and it is of the highest degree."

Authorities cited fears of violence to place Bhutto under house arrest last Friday and prevent her leading a rally in Rawalpindi.

On October 18, suicide bombings hit her homecoming parade in Karachi, killing 139 people.

Bhutto was greeted by crowds waving and flashing victory signs Monday as she was driven through Lahore under a heavy security escort, and her Pakistan People's Party warned of violence if the rally was stopped.

"We will go ahead with the long march," provincial party spokesman Farzana Raja said. "If they stop us, there will be fighting in the streets of Lahore and protests in the streets of Punjab."

Bhutto welcomed Musharraf's schedule for elections by January 9.

But she said they would be meaningless if held under emergency laws, which the government has widened to give the army sweeping powers to investigate and try civilians -- including possible court-martials.

Analysts agreed. "This combination gives rise to fears that opposition and dissent will be curbed. Given recent circumstances, there is no guarantee that it will not be abused," retired army general Talat Masood told AFP.

Musharraf imposed the state of emergency on November 3, citing a surge of militant violence and interference by the judiciary in governance.

He announced on Sunday that parliament would be dissolved Thursday to pave the way for elections on a date to be fixed by an election commission.

It meets a key demand of the embattled military ruler's critics at home and abroad, and was guardedly welcomed by the United States and Britain.

At the same time, Musharraf indicated the state of emergency would continue "to ensure absolutely fair and transparent elections."

A vital US ally in the battle against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, he has been under fierce international pressure to end the emergency since suspending the constitution and sacking Pakistan's chief justice.

Bhutto said the elections timetable was not enough on its own to defuse the crisis engulfing the nuclear-armed nation of 160 million people.

Further pressure came from the Commonwealth, whose action group was due to meet in London later Monday to mull whether to suspend Pakistan, as it did for five years when Musharraf seized power in a coup in 1999.

"The constitution issue is very important and elections have to take place within the context of the constitution," Malta's Foreign Minister Michael Frendo, who chairs the committee, told BBC radio.

Meanwhile Pakistan's attorney general Malik Muhammad Qayyum said the revamped Supreme Court would likely resume its hearings next week on challenges to Musharraf's re-election as president.

They argue he was ineligible to stand for another five-year term while army chief, and that the vote should not have been held by the outgoing parliament but by the incoming federal and provincial assemblies.

Musharraf has said he will only quit as head of the powerful army a key demand of the international community once the top court has validated his victory.