ISLAMABAD, Nov 3 (Reuters) Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule today, deploying troops and sacking a top judge in a bid to reassert his flagging authority against political rivals and Islamist militants.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan's internal security has deteriorated sharply in recent months with a wave of suicide attacks by al Qaeda-inspired militants, including one that killed 139 people.
State-run Pakistan Television said Musharraf had suspended the constitution and declared an emergency, ending weeks of speculation that the general who seized power in a 1999 coup might impose emergency rule or martial law.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a visit to Turkey, criticised the measures as ''highly regrettable'' and said she hoped Pakistan would have a free and fair election in January as promised.
Witnesses said troops were deployed at Pakistan Television and radio stations, and most phone lines were down. Other troops sealed off the thoroughfare where the presidency building, the National Assembly and the Supreme Court are located.
Shots were heard in several neighbourhoods of Karachi, where there is strong support for former opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister.
Television channels said that Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, whose earlier dismissal in March marked the beginning of a slide in Musharraf's popularity, had been told that his services were ''no longer required''.
Chaudhry had been reinstated in July.
Musharraf had been awaiting a Supreme Court ruling on whether he was eligible to run for re-election last month while still army chief. The court had said yesterday it would reconvene on Monday and try to finish the case quickly.
Chaudhry and eight other judges refused to endorse the provisional constitutional order issued by the president.
LAWYER ARRESTED Aitzaz Ahsan, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, told reporters at his home he was being arrested.
''One man has taken the entire nation hostage ... Time has come for General Musharraf to go,'' he said. Fellow lawyers shouted ''Go Musharraf Go'' as Ahsan was taken away by police.
The move is expected to put off parliamentary elections due in January, although Pakistan Television said that the cabinet, national and provincial assemblies would continue to function.
A senior security official told Reuters that Musharraf would seek approval for the move from the cabinet later, after which there were expectations he would address the nation.
The cabinet was due to start meeting at 1930 IST.
Musharraf had said he would quit as army chief if he was given a second term, and he had allowed Bhutto back into Pakistan to lead her party into the national elections.
A suicide bombing killed 139 people on October 19 when thousands of supporters flocked to the streets to welcome Bhutto when she returned to Karachi from eight years of self-imposed exile. She had flown to Dubai on Thursday.
Bhutto's husband Asif Ali Zardari said she was already on a flight back to Pakistan from Dubai. He described Musharraf's move as ''definitely not pleasant news''.
''We're hoping to build institutions, not destroy them.'' Exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, deposed by Musharraf in the 1999 coup, described his decision to invoke emergency powers as a form of martial law.
''We are heading towards a chaotic situation, heading towards anarchy,'' Sharif told Indian news channel CNN-IBN in an interview replayed by Dawn Television in Pakistan.
Musharraf's troubles began in March when he suspended Supreme Court Justice Chaudhry on allegations of misconduct.
Critics accused him of trying to put pressure on the court not to block his re-election and Musharraf's popularity plummetted as lawyers rallied to support the top judge.
In July, after a week-long siege, Musharraf ordered troops to storm the Red Mosque in Islamabad to crush a Taliban-style movement based there.
At least 105 people were killed in the raid and a wave of deadly militant attacks and suicide bombings followed.
REUTERS AM AS2222