Pak Govt says it could declare emergency
The Pak Govt says "external and internal threats" and deteriorating law and order in the northwest may force it to impose emergency.
The government of embattled Pakistani President Gen Pervez Musharraf said on Thursday it may impose a state of emergency because of "external and internal threats" and deteriorating law and order in the volatile northwest near the Afghan border.
Tariq Azim, minister of state for information, said some sentiment coming from the United States, including from Democratic presidential hopeful Barak Obama, over the possibility of US military action against al-Qaida in Pakistan "has started alarm bells ringing and has upset the Pakistani public." But it appeared the motivation for an emergency declaration would be the domestic political woes of Musharraf, a key ally in the US war on terrorism who took power in a 1999 coup.
His popularity has dwindled and his standing has been badly shaken by a failed bid to oust the country's chief justice - an independent-minded judge likely to rule on expected legal challenges to Musharraf's bid to seek a new five-year presidential term.
The government's comments on a possible emergency declaration came hours after Musharraf abruptly announced he was canceling a planned trip to Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday to attend a US-backed tribal peace council aimed at curtailing cross-border militancy by the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
During a state of emergency, the government can restrict the freedom to move, rally, engage in political activities or form groups and impose other limits such as restricting the parliament's right to make laws or even dissolving parliament.
"These are only unconfirmed reports although the possibility of imposition of emergency cannot be ruled out and has recently been talked about and discussed, keeping in mind some external and internal threats and the law and order situation," Azim told The Associated Press.
"We hope that it does not happen. But we are going through difficult circumstances so the possibility of an emergency cannot be ruled out," he said.
Azim referred to recent Pakistani military action against militants in northwestern border areas that he said had resulted in the deaths of many soldiers.
No announcement had been made by daybreak on Thursday, and a Musharraf aide said he was due to meet with Cabinet ministers, the attorney-general and leaders from the ruling party to discuss whether an emergency should be declared.
Musharraf on Wednesday pulled out of a "peace jirga" in Kabul that is to bring more than 600 Pakistani and Afghan tribal leaders together with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Pakistan's Foreign Office said Musharraf had phoned Karzai on Wednesday to say he couldn't attend because of "engagements" in Islamabad, and that Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz would take his place. Afghan officials said the jirga would proceed as planned without Musharraf.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke with Musharraf by phone in the early hours of Thursday, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation. The official refused to discuss the content of the 17-minute conversation, which began shortly after 2 am on Thursday Pakistan time.
Earlier, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the US understands Musharraf's decision to pull out of the planned meeting in Afghanistan.
"President Musharraf certainly wouldn't stay back in Islamabad if he didn't believe he had good and compelling reasons to stay back," McCormack said. "Certainly we would understand that." Musharraf is under growing American pressure to crack down on militants at the Afghan border because of fears that al-Qaida is regrouping there.
The Bush administration has also not ruled out unilateral military action inside Pakistan, but like Obama, has stressed the need to work with Musharraf.
One of Musharraf's worries back home is a Supreme Court hearing set for Thursday of a petition in which exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif - ousted in 1999 in the coup that brought Musharraf to power - and his brother are seeking to be allowed to return to Pakistan to contest parliamentary elections due by early 2008.
Speaking from London to Pakistan's Geo TV, Shahbaz Sharif, brother of Nawaz Sharif, said an emergency would be aimed at stopping two "pillars of the country" from coming back. "This will be another blunder by Musharraf. There is no justification, no basis for emergency," he said.
Another exiled former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, widely reported to have met with Musharraf recently in the United Arab Emirates to discuss a power-sharing deal, said that imposition of emergency would be a "drastic" step.
"This will be a negative step for the restoration of democracy," she told Pakistan's Geo TV from New York. "This will be a retrogressive step and the country will go back." Under Pakistan's Constitution, the president may declare a state of emergency if it is deemed the country's security is "threatened by war or external aggression, or by internal disturbance beyond" the government's authority to control.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad and Sadaqat Jan in Islamabad, Pakistan, Jason Straziuso in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.