Pakistan police block Bhutto, US ups pressure

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 10 (Reuters) Police blocked opposition leader Benazir Bhutto from visiting Pakistan's deposed chief justice today and President Pervez Musharraf resisted US calls to end emergency rule.

Bhutto, herself kept under house arrest for most of Friday, tried to approach former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry's home where he is being detained.

Police parked trucks on the road to block her path.

After imposing emergency rule and suspending the constitution a week ago citing a hostile judiciary and rising militancy, General Musharraf sacked most of the Supreme Court's judges and has since replaced them with more amenable ones.

''He is the chief justice, he is the real chief justice,'' Bhutto blared over a megaphone, demanding all the judges be reinstated.

Critics say army chief Musharraf imposed the emergency to get rid of the independent-minded Chaudhry and other top judges in a Supreme Court regarded as hostile to the president since he tried to dismiss Chaudhry in March.

The court was set to rule on challenges to Musharraf's October 6 presidential election victory, which might have been declared invalid as he stood for re-election while army chief.

Bhutto will defy Musharraf and go ahead with a pro-democracy motorcade from Lahore to Islamabad next week, after police scotched a protest by her Pakistan People's Party in the garrison town of Rawalpindi adjoining Islamabad yesterday.

Yesterday, police used batons and teargas to break up small protests in several parts of the country, but demonstrations have been relatively small by Pakistani standards.

Pakistan's slide into political uncertainty has accelerated over the past week with military chief Musharraf's imposition of emergency rule scaring foreign investors and domestic markets.

Thousands of Musharraf opponents have been arrested.

The United States is worried the turmoil will hamper its nuclear-armed ally's efforts against terrorism. Pakistani forces are battling a growing Islamist insurgency along the Afghan border -- where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding.

''DIFFICULT DECISION'' Bhutto, the Pakistani politician most able to mobilise masses, was due to meet foreign diplomats later in the day.

She briefly joined journalists protesting outside the offices of a television channel against a blackout on private news broadcasts.

BBC and CNN are also off the air, though newspapers are publishing freely.

Bhutto is due to head to Lahore tomorrow, and has said Musharraf can defuse the protest if he restores the constitution, removes his army uniform and calls elections by mid-January.

Musharraf has said elections will 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 new Supreme Court judges struck down challenges to his re-election.

Musharraf briefed army commanders telling them the emergency had been a very difficult decision but necessary to ensure effective governance, maintain efforts against terrorism and provide for a stable political transition, the military said.

Political analysts say Musharraf still has the vital backing of the military but big anti-government protests might begin to undermine the support.

Officials say Musharraf will likely keep the emergency short. Attorney General Malik Abdul Qayyum said it would end in a month or two, depending on the law and order situation.

Bhutto has been holding power-sharing talks with Musharraf for months and political analysts say cooperation between the pair -- which the United States has been quietly encouraging -- is still possible.

The United States kept up pressure on Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless 1999 coup and is regarded as a close ally in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban, calling yesterday for an end to emergency rule.

President George W Bush has said Musharraf cannot be army chief and president at the same time. The United States, which has long urged free and fair elections, also called for the release of political party members and peaceful protesters.

The government says 2,500 people had been detained since the emergency was declared, though Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party say 5,000 activists have been picked up over the past few days.

REUTERS SZ RAI1934

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