Pakistan braces for new anti-emergency protests

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 6 (Reuters) Pakistani police braced for more lawyers' protests today against President Pervez Musharraf's emergency rule, a day after officials said in face of mounting US pressure that an election would be held in early 2008.

US President George W Bush, who values General Musharraf as an ally in his battle against al Qaeda and the Taliban, urged Pakistan's military ruler ysterday to lift the emergency he had imposed on Saturday, hold elections and quit his military post.

Troops in Islamabad manned razor-wire checkpoints near the presidential palace, parliament and Supreme Court early on Tuesday, while police vetted lawyers trying to enter the High Court in the country's financial hub, Karachi.

Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, has detained hundreds of lawyers and opposition politicians since Saturday.

The move was seen designed to pre-empt the possibility of the Supreme Court invalidating his re-election by parliament as president last month because he stood while still army chief.

After dismissing judges who were too difficult to handle, Musharraf has been filling the Supreme Court benches with more amenable figures. Four more were sworn on Tuesday, taking the total to 9 -- well short of the original strength of 17.

The imposition of emergency rule had raised considerable doubts whether parliamentary elections, expected in January, would go ahead as scheduled.

A stock market that dropped 4.6 per cent yesterday -- its largest daily fall in terms of points -- as emergency rule scared investors fell another 0.7 per cent in today's morning session. Standard&Poor's revised its credit ratings outlook on Pakistan from stable to negative.

The ratings agency cited prolonged political uncertainty following emergency rule ''and its potential impact on economic growth, fiscal performance, and external vulnerability''.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said yesterday elections would take place on schedule, but there has still been no definitive word from Musharraf.

Attorney General Malik Abdul Qayyum said the National and provincial assemblies would be dissolved on Nov 15, completing their term, and an election would take place by mid-January.

''Elections will be held, will be held on time and the tenure (of the assemblies) is not being extended for a year,'' close Musharraf ally and possible future prime minister Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, chief minister of Punjab province, told a televised news conference in the eastern city of Lahore.

Musharraf's cabinet was due to meet on Tuesday to discuss the emergency rule, while former prime minister Benazir Bhutto -- who the United States had hoped would end up sharing power with the president after January's poll -- was due in Islamabad soon.

Bhutto has denounced the emergency as ''mini-martial law'', but she has not mobilised her street power, and so far the lawyers have been the only group mounting significant protests.

A spokesman said Bhutto would definitely be in Islamabad on Wednesday for political meetings, and might come as early as Tuesday.

Police used teargas against stone-throwing lawyers in Lahore on Monday, and wielded batons to break up another protest outside the High Court in Karachi.

INCOMMUNICADO There was no indication of when Musharraf would lift emergency rule, which he justified by citing a hostile judiciary and rising militancy. However he said on Monday he planned to give up his military role in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

''I am determined to execute this third stage of transition fully and I'm determined to remove my uniform once we correct these pillars, the judiciary and the executive and the parliament,'' he told foreign diplomats.

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.

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.

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.

The United States has put future aid to Pakistan under review, having provided billion in the past five years, and postponed defence cooperation talks with Pakistan due this week.

''We expect there to be elections as soon as possible and that the president should remove his military uniform,'' Bush said in Washington, while praising his fight against extremists.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon voiced dismay at mass detentions of rights activists and opposition supporters, calling for their immediate release.

''He should not impose emergency rule, he should reintroduce democracy into the country with the consultation of all political parties,'' said 58-year-old Muhammad Sarwar, a retired taxi driver, as he shopped in an Islamabad bazaar early on Tuesday.

REUTERS ARB BD1400

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