ISLAMABAD, Nov 4 (Reuters) Pakistani authorities today arrested hundreds of opposition activists and lawyers in a countrywide crackdown launched hours after military President Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule in the country.
The opposition and lawyers groups have vowed to protest against Musharraf's move to suspend the constitution and enforce a provisional constitutional order in a bid to reassert his flagging authority against growing challenges to his rule.
Police arrested around 300 rights activists, lawyers and opposition workers, including a top leader of the party led by exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
''Musharraf's days are numbered. The time has come to end the political role of the army,'' Javed Hashmi, acting president of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), told reporters before being whisked away by police in the central city of Multan.
Police arrested around 40 opposition activists, including a former chief of the army's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, Hameed Gul, in the capital Islamabad, while 30 human rights activists were rounded up in a raid on their office in the eastern city of Lahore.
An official of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's party said around 200 of its activists had been arrested in central Punjab, politically the most influential province of the country.
In Karachi, Pakistan's largest and most politically volatile city, police chief Azhar Ali Farooqi spelled out the uncompromising stand that has been ordered.
''Our soft policy is over now. We have zero tolerance. We will take action, arrest and use force if necessary,'' Farooqi said, as attention turned to what Bhutto, the country's most potent politician, might do next.
Bhutto, who ended eight years of self-imposed exile last month with Musharraf's blessing, returned to Karachi on Saturday evening after a short trip to Dubai and took a strong stand against what she called a ''mini-martial'' law.
But the litmus test will be whether she calls for street protests and risks arrest herself or seeks to persuade Musharraf to reverse his decision.
Lawyers, at the forefront of an anti-Musharraf campaign after he tried to sack the country's chief justice in March, have called for a countrywide boycot of the courts for Monday.
Police arrested Aitzaz Ahsan, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, yesterday and many more lawyers were arrested today.
''It's the second takeover of the country by General Musharraf since 1999. He has not imposed emergency rule but has imposed martial law,'' Tariq Mehmood, a leading anti-Musharraf lawyer, told Reuters from a police station where he was detained.
Opposition parties have also called for a strike in the southwestern province of Baluchistan for tomorrow.
Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the leader of an alliance of Islamist opposition parties and a fierce Musharraf critic, called on the people to take to the streets to ''throw out the military dictator''.
Police placed leading opposition figure and former cricket star Imran Khan under house arrest early today after he had also urged Pakistanis to take to the streets. However, hours later, he escaped from his house in Lahore.
REUTERS ARB RN1600