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Bhutto to go ahead with protest rally

Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto will defy President Pervez Musharraf and go ahead with a pro-democracy rally next week.

world Updated: Nov 10, 2007 12:13 IST
Simon Gardner
Simon Gardner

Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto will defy President Pervez Musharraf and go ahead with a pro-democracy rally next week, an aide said on Saturday, as Washington called on Pakistan to end its state of emergency.

A defiant Bhutto, who was kept under house arrest in Islamabad on Friday to prevent her from leading a protest in the adjoining garrison town of Rawalpindi, plans to travel by motorcade from Lahore to the capital on Tuesday.

Police maintained a strong security presence at Bhutto's Islamabad residence early on Saturday, complete with barbed wire and concrete barriers, despite saying she was no longer under house arrest, a Reuters witness said.

Pakistan's slide into political uncertainty has accelerated over the past week with military chief Musharraf's imposition of emergency rule scaring foreign investors and spooking domestic markets. Thousands of Musharraf opponents have also been arrested.

"On the 13th, it (the motorcade) will go ahead. If she's not there, the rally will still happen," said Jamil Soomro, a media coordinator for Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, told Reuters.

He said Bhutto, the Pakistani politician most able to mobilise masses on the streets, was likely to spend Saturday meeting foreign diplomats but gave no details on her movements.

"The government has been paralysed," Bhutto shouted to supporters across a barbed-wire barricade on Friday as police used batons and teargas to break up small protests in several parts of the country.

"If he restores the constitution, takes off his uniform, gives up the office of the chief of army staff and announces an election by January 15, then it's OK," she said.

Musharraf has said elections will be held by Feburary 15, about a month later than they were due. He also said he would quit as army chief and be sworn in as a civilian president once new judges appointed to the Supreme Court struck down challenges against his re-election.

Bhutto has been holding power-sharing talks with Musharraf for months and political analysts say cooperation between the pair -- which the United States was earlier said to have been encouraging -- is still possible.

Foreign pressure

The United States kept up pressure on Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless 1999 coup and the US regards as a close ally in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban, calling for an end to emergency rule he imposed a week ago citing a hostile judiciary and rising militancy.

"Free and fair elections require a lifting of the state of emergency," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council.

"We therefore continue to call for an early end to that state of emergency and the release of political party members and peaceful protesters who have been detained," he told reporters in Texas, where President George W. Bush is staying at his ranch.

After imposing emergency rule last Saturday and suspending the constitution, Musharraf sacked most of the country's judges, and put senior officials -- including former chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry -- under house arrest.

He also ordered a round-up of thousands of opposition figures, supporters and lawyers protesting against Chaudhry's removal.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said 2,500 people had been detained since the emergency was declared, though Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party say 5,000 of their activists have been picked up over the past few days.

(Additional reporting by Rehmatullah Mehsud; Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Alex Richardson)

First Published: Nov 10, 2007 12:01 IST