ISLAMABAD, Nov 5 (Reuters) The Pakistani government said today it would hold a national election by mid-January, as it came under pressure from the United States for imposing emergency rule and detaining lawyers and opposition politicians.
President Pervez Musharraf's decision to suspend the constitution and purge the Supreme Court has unleashed a torrent of international criticism.
US President George W. Bush, who values Musharraf as an ally in his battle against al Qaeda and the Taliban, called for a quick return to civilian rule and the release of hundreds of detainees rounded up since Saturday.
It had been unclear whether parliamentary elections scheduled for January would go ahead, but Attorney General Malik Abdul Qayyum told Reuters: ''It has been decided there would be no delay in the election and by November 15, these assemblies (national and provincial) will be dissolved and elections will be held within the next 60 days.'' But it was unclear when Musharraf would lift emergency rule, which he imposed on Saturday, citing a hostile judiciary and rising militancy.
Musharraf, who seized power in 1999 and had been waiting for the Supreme Court to decide if his re-election as president while still army chief was valid, had to dismiss rumours sweeping the country that he had been put under house arrest.
''WE WANT A FREE ELECTION'' Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said cases lying before the Supreme Court, including challenges to Musharraf's re-election, had to be concluded before a parliamentary election that is supposed to transform Pakistan into a civilian-led democracy.
''We don't want to disrupt the election process. We want a free election,'' he told a news conference.
Many Pakistanis believe Musharraf's main motive in declaring emergency rule was to pre-empt the Supreme Court's ruling on his re-election.
But security has deteriorated since July, when commandos stormed Islamabad's Red Mosque to crush an armed Islamist movement. Since then nearly 800 people have been killed in militant-linked violence, half of them by suicide attacks.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Musharraf should quit the army and become a civilian leader, and hold the elections as scheduled.
The United States put future aid to Pakistan under review, having provided 10 billion dollars in the past five years, and postponed defence talks with Pakistan due this week.
Britain also warned Pakistan on future funding.
Meanwhile police used teargas against stone-throwing lawyers in the eastern city of Lahore, and wielded batons to break up another protest by dozens outside the High Court in Karachi.
Several hundred lawyers, chanting ''Go Musharraf Go!'' and ''The dictator is unacceptable!'', protested outside the lower courts in Islamabad until police broke them up by force.
''We are not scared of these arrests. We will continue our fight, come what may,'' Karachi lawyer Abdul Hafeez, one of hundreds of lawyers arrested on Monday, said as police bundled him into a car.
JUDGES HELD Several judges were held incommunicado at their homes after refusing to back emergency rule.
Among them was dismissed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who became a symbol of resistance to Musharraf's rule after defying pressure to quit in March.
''It is the duty of all citizens of the country and lawyers in particular to continue their struggle for the supremacy of the constitution, rule of law, independence of judiciary and real democracy,'' Chaudhry said in a statement.
He said he was under virtual house arrest, as were other Supreme Court judges.
There have also been mass detentions of political activists.
Qazi Hussein Ahmed, leader of the main Islamist opposition party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), was taken into custody today. Authorities had already rounded up 600-700 JI supporters in southern and central provinces overnight.
Benazir Bhutto, leader of the largest opposition party, has remained in Karachi since hurrying back from Dubai as the emergency was being imposed.
Pakistani shares fell 4.6 per cent, compounding losses incurred last week as talk of impending emergency rule swirled.
Since Pakistan was formed in 1947 by the partition of India after British colonial rule, it has reeled from one crisis to another and spent half its 60 years ruled by generals.
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