Bhutto vows "long march" unless Musharraf backs down

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 7 (Reuters) Former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto threatened today to lead a mass protest heading to the capital unless President Pervez Musharraf quits as army chief, holds elections and restores the constitution.

Bhutto, leader of the largest opposition party and the politician most capable of mobilising street power, gave Musharraf until Friday to comply.

Government officials have said national elections due in January will be held on time and a member of Musharraf's inner circle said emergency rule was likely to be lifted within 2 or 3 weeks. Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan said Musharraf would keep it ''very short''.

But Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup and imposed emergency rule last Saturday citing a hostile judiciary and rising militancy, has not yet personally confirmed either.

Bhutto made her political demands clear at an Islamabad news conference after meeting members of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and smaller opposition parties.

''We can't work for dictatorship. We can work for democracy,'' she said. ''General Musharraf can open the door for negotiations only if he revives the constitution, retires as chief of army staff and sticks to the schedule of holding elections.'' She said her supporters would begin their protest on November 13 from the eastern city of Lahore, capital of Punjab province and the nation's political nerve-centre, and travel to Islamabad to stage a sit-in.

She and her entourage would set off by car in what was expected to build into a big procession, with supporters also travelling to throng the route as the cavalcade later wended its way to the capital in what Bhutto described as a ''long march''.

''The ball is now in government's court,'' she said.

Her PPP is also due to hold a public protest rally in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, next to Islamabad, on November 9.

Police said it would be blocked.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan with Musharraf's blessing on October 18 after almost eight years of self-imposed exile, amid speculation that she could end up sharing power with him after elections, forging a partnership favoured by the United States.

Hundreds of thousands of supporters welcomed Bhutto on her return, but the cheerful homecoming was short-lived. A suicide bomb attack next to her motorcade killed at least 139 people.

COURTS DESERTED Police have arrested hundreds of lawyers and opposition figures and supporters since Saturday, and courts remained virtually deserted across Pakistan on Wednesday in a boycott by lawyers angry at the crackdown.

Musharraf's main reason for imposing emergency rule and suspending the constitution appears to have been the removal of judges who appeared hostile to the government, analysts say.

The Supreme Court had been hearing challenges to the legality of Musharraf's October 6 re-election by parliament while still army chief. Fears the decision could have gone against the general were believed to have been the main motive for his move.

The only public protests of any size so far have been led by lawyers, outraged by the dismissal of independent-minded judges such as ousted chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who is being held incommunicado at his residence in Islamabad.

As arrests have mounted lawyers' protests have become more subdued. Two dozen students threw stones at police at an elite university in Lahore, while some 500 students and lawyers protested peacefully outside the courts in Islamabad.

Opposition politician Imran Khan, who fled his home on Sunday after police searched it, told Britain's Sky News television from a ''secret location'' that sustaining a momentum of protest was crucial.

''What Musharraf is hoping is ... he's got rid of the judiciary, the supreme court judges, he's got his own pocket judges there and what he wants is to stop all street movement or protest against this move.'' INTERNATIONAL OUTRAGE Announcing the emergency and suspension of the constitution, Musharraf said he was being hampered by a hostile judiciary while fighting rising militancy and asked in vain for Western allies' understanding.

The United States and Britain were joined by the 27-nation European Union in urging Musharraf to release all political detainees, including members of the judiciary, relax media curbs, and seek reconciliation with political opponents.

US ambassador Anne W Patterson met Bhutto on Wednesday and also the government's top lawyer Attorney-General Malik Abdul Qayyum, US Embassy spokeswoman Elizabeth Colton said.

Asked how long the United States is willing to wait for word on when Musharraf will restore constitutional rule, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters: ''I don't want to put a time frame on it. But soon. This is not a never-ending process.'' Washington has said it will review aid to Pakistan which has totalled nearly 10 billion dollars since the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The Commonwealth, a 53-nation group of mainly former British colonies, called a ministerial meeting in London next week to discuss Pakistan. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Pakistan could face suspension unless it lifts the emergency and holds ''fair and free'' elections.

REUTERS NC KP2337

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