Police block Bhutto, Pakistan capital sealed off

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 9 (Reuters) Pakistani police blocked opposition leader Benazir Bhutto from leaving her home in Islamabad today and sealed off the capital and nearby city of Rawalpindi to stop a rally against President Pervez Musharraf.

Bhutto, the politician most capable of galvanising mass protests against Musharraf's imposition of emergency rule, tried to breach a cordon and appealed to police to let her through.

''Get out of the way. We are your sisters ... We have no hostility towards you,'' said Bhutto through a megaphone.

But her bullet-proof car, surrounded by supporters, failed to break through the cordon in front of her home.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said 2,500 people had been detained since the emergency was declared at the weekend, though Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples' Party say 5,000 of their activists have been picked up in the past couple of days.

Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in Rawalpindi, where Bhutto planned to lead a rally. Barbed-wire barricades were erected on all roads leading to the venue.

Railways Minister and close Musharraf ally, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, told Reuters Bhutto's detention was temporary and meant to protect her from suicide bomb attacks, as well as stop her going to Rawalpindi.

Bhutto had earlier said that in addition to the public meeting in Rawalpindi, she planned a mass motor procession from Lahore on Nov. 13.

US WORRIED Under fire from Western allies and the international community, and with an angry Bhutto on his doorstep, Musharraf has become increasingly isolated, fuelling concern about instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

''The concern I have is that the longer the internal problems continue, the more distracted the Pakistani army and security services will be in terms of the internal situation rather than focusing on the terrorist threat in the frontier area,'' US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said today.

A suspected suicide blast at the home of the Minister of Political Affairs, Amir Muqam, killed two people today, state-run Pakistan Television said. The minister was unhurt.

It remains to be seen whether Musharraf, who had viewed Bhutto as a potential ally, can control events set in train by his shock decision last Saturday to impose emergency rule and suspend the constitution.

He has sacked most of the country's judges, putting senior officials -- including former chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry -- under house arrest, and ordered police to round up the majority of the opposition leadership. And anyone else deemed troublesome.

Police wielded batons and fired teargas to disperse hundreds of opposition protesters in the northwestern city of Peshawar and a nearby town today, police and witnesses said.

A group of former world leaders, including Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter, has denounced Musharraf's authoritarian steps.

A group called the Elders issued a statement giving support to ''all those freedom-loving Pakistanis who have chosen to join in peaceful expressions of opposition to these dictatorial acts''.

The government says it fears Bhutto could be the target of another suicide attack.

Islamist militants opposed to Bhutto's ties with the United States were believed responsible for a suicide bomb attack that killed 139 people at a procession in Karachi to welcome her back to Pakistan on October 18.

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

Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless 1999 coup, said yesterday 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 struck down challenges against his re-election.

REUTERS RKM RAI1734

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