Bush speaks to Pakistan's Musharraf, urges elections

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 8 (Reuters) US President George W Bush said he had urged Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to hold elections and quit as army chief in a ''frank discussion'' with an ally fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban.

It was the first time Bush has spoken directly to Musharraf since the leader of nuclear-armed Pakistan declared a state of emergency on Saturday.

Bush's intervention came as former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto threatened to lead a mass protest to the capital unless Musharraf gives up his military post, 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 yesterday to comply.

The United States had hoped Bhutto would share power with Musharraf after elections due in January, but Musharraf's calling of the emergency brought disarray to US policy.

''My message was that we believe strongly in elections and that you ought to have elections soon and you need to take off your uniform. You can't be the president and the head of the military at the same time,'' Bush told a news conference yesterday.

''I had a very frank discussion with him,'' Bush said.

Pakistan government officials have said January elections will be held on time. A member of Musharraf's inner circle said emergency rule was likely to be lifted within 2 or 3 weeks.

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 this.

Washington has said it will review aid to Pakistan which has totalled nearly billion since the September 11, 2001 attacks.

BHUTTO ISSUES DEMANDS 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, 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.

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

Police have arrested hundreds of lawyers and opposition figures and supporters since Saturday.

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 Oct. 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.

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.

REUTERS MP AS0424

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