Bhutto under 'virtual house arrest'-spokeswoman

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 9 (Reuters) Pakistani police placed opposition leader Benazir Bhutto under virtual house arrest, a spokeswoman said, to stop her from holding her first rally since President Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule.

A senior official in Islamabad said police had cordoned off Bhutto's home in the city but only for her protection. A suicide bomb attack on a procession in Karachi to welcome Bhutto home on October 18 killed 139 people.

But other officials said she would be stopped if she tried to attend the rally, due to begin in Rawalpindi near Islamabad at 1 pm (1430 hrs IST).

''She's free to go anywhere but if she tries to go to the rally she'll be stopped,'' said a government official who declined to be identified.

A senior police official said an order placing Bhutto under house arrest had been prepared.

Bhutto party spokeswoman, Sherry Rehman, said although Bhutto was not officially under house arrest police were blocking all movement in and out.

''It's virtual house arrest,'' she said.

Army chief Musharraf imposed emergency rule last Saturday citing a hostile judiciary and rising militancy in the nuclear-armed US ally.

But Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless 1999 coup, said yesterday general elections would be held by February 15, about a month later than they were due.

He also said he would quit as army chief and be sworn in as a civilian president once the Supreme Court ruled whether he was eligible to stand for re-election last month while still army chief.

However, two-time prime minister Bhutto, who returned from more than eight years of self-imposed exile last month, said she wanted more than vague statements on the elections.

DEMANDS Bhutto is demanding that Musharraf set a date for the election, steps down as army chief, restores the constitution and releases people detained since the weekend.

She had said that in addition to the public meeting in Rawalpindi by her Pakistan People's Party (PPP), she also planned a mass motor procession from Lahore on November 13.

Police have banned rallies and PPP officials say thousands of their activists have been detained over the past few days.

Police were out in force early today, erecting barbed-wire barricade on all roads leading to the Rawalpindi park wherethe rally was planned.

''Whoever tries to show up for the meeting will be arrested,'' said Rawalpindi police chief Saud Aziz.

Hundreds of police with batons manned barricades on roads to her home and an armoured vehicle was parked nearby.

Another Bhutto party spokeswoman said Bhutto still planned to attend the rally and would set off at about noon (1230 IST).

''They are terrified of the PPP's popularity,'' said senior PPP official and member of parliament, Raja Pervez Ashraf.

REUTERS RJ BD1143

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