Pakistan's Musharraf makes poll date he must keep

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 8 (Reuters) Pakistani national elections will take place before February. 15, President Pervez Musharraf said today, after Western allies and opponents had demanded polls be held on time and emergency rule scrapped.

''There is no doubt in my mind that elections should be held on time, as soon as possible,'' Musharraf told official media after chairing a meeting of the National Security Council.

''It was my commitment and I am fulfilling it.'' General Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless 1999 coup, added he would quit the military and be sworn in as a civilian president once the Supreme Court rules whether he was eligible to stand for re-election last month while still army chief.

The announcement went some way to assuaging criticism from Musharraf's main overseas backer, the United States.

''We think it is a good thing that President Musharraf has clarified the election date for the Pakistani people,'' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

Many Pakistanis remained sceptical.

''I don't trust him. Military rulers in Pakistan never fulfilled their promise,'' said Nighat Anis, a retired teacher in Islamabad.

''It's our history. We have always been cheated.'' It remains to be seen whether Musharraf can control events set in train by his shock decision last Saturday to declare emergency rule, suspend the constitution, sack most of the country's judges and round up the majority of the opposition leadership, and anyone else deemed troublesome.

Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, who has thrown down the gauntlet by threatening to lead mass protests, said Musharraf needed to do more.

''We don't want vague and generalised statements. We want upfront answers,'' she told a news conference, responding to Musharraf's comments.

FREE JUDGES She said Musharraf should release detained judges and let ''the real Supreme Court'' decide on challenges to his re-election.

''We will accept the decision of that Supreme Court, which will be constitutional and includes those judges who are detained,'' she said.

Ousted chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry is being held incommunicado at his residence in Islamabad and several other judges who were hearing the challenges are under house arrest.

Most Pakistanis believe Musharraf's principal motive for invoking an emergency was to forestall a possible adverse ruling by the Supreme Court.

Musharraf has replaced Supreme Court judges with more friendly faces in the expectation that they will strike down the challenges, but he is facing a revolt by the judiciary.

Lawyers have led protests and are boycotting the courts, there have been a couple of student demonstrations. But so far the political opposition has not shown its street power.

Bhutto said her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) would hold a public meeting in Rawalpindi, adjoining the capital Islamabad, tomorrow, a national holiday. Plans were still on for a mass motor procession from Lahore on November. 13 unless Musharraf gives in.

Police have warned the party that rallies are banned, and Bhutto said hundreds of PPP activists had been detained overnight in Lahore and other cities across the central province of Punjab.

Police had already detained hundreds of lawyers and other opposition figures and supporters since Saturday.

PUSH FROM BUSH Musharraf's latest announcement came just hours after U.S.

President George W. Bush called him, urging him to hold elections and take off his army uniform.

''My message was ... You can't be the president and the head of the military at the same time,'' Bush told a news conference.

Washington had been quietly encouraging Bhutto and the increasingly unpopular general to share power after the polls, wanting to see another progressive-minded politician alongside him to carry the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

A senior Pentagon general said the U.S. military was worried about the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons due to the uncertainty where emergency rule might eventually lead a country where Islamist militants are already seizing swathes of territory in the northwest and attacking cities with suicide bombers .

The Karachi stock market fell 0.6 per cent Today due to continued political uncertainty, but ended off the day's lows due to investor hopes that emergency rule would soon be lifted.

The market had held steady for two days after a 4.6 per cent fall on Monday in reaction to the emergency. The benchmark index is now around 10 percent off its historic high on OctOBER.

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REUTERS MS RK2005

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