Pakistan's Bhutto keeps up pressure on Musharraf

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 11 (Reuters) Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto is due to set off for the eastern city of Lahore today on the latest phase of a campaign to restore democracy in the nuclear-armed country.

Bhutto described Pakistan yesterday as a ''pressure cooker'' about to explode. President Pervez Musharraf was due to hold a news conference at about 1400 hrs IST, his first since imposing emergency rule on November 3.

Since invoking emergency powers, General Musharraf has sacked most of the country's judges, putting senior ones under house arrest, and ordered police to round up the majority of the opposition leadership, and anyone else deemed troublesome.

He has also placed curbs on media; private news channels are off the air, and transmissions of the BBC and CNN have been blocked, although newspapers are publishing freely.

The government further tightened the screws on media yesterday by telling three British journalists to get out.

''Pakistan under dictatorship is a pressure cooker,'' Bhutto told diplomats at a reception hosted by loyalists at the Senate on Saturday night. ''Without a place to vent, the passion of our people for liberty threatens to explode.'' Police have used batons and teargas to disperse protesters in various parts of the country but there has been no major violence.

Bhutto planned to travel today to Lahore, the city where the pulse of Pakistani politics beats strongest.

She plans to lead a ''long march'' -- actually a mass motorcade -- from Lahore to Islamabad, beginning on Tuesday, to put more pressure on Musharraf to revoke emergency rule, restore the constitution, reinstate the sacked judges, quit as army chief, hold elections in January, and free thousands of detainees.

''She will go ahead with the long march, come what may. This is final,'' Fehmida Mirza, an aide to Bhutto, told Reuters.

''DIFFICULT DECISION'' Bhutto, who had been holding power-sharing talks with Musharraf for months, was briefly placed under house arrest on Friday. Yesterday she was stopped from meeting the deposed chief justice who has been detained at his Islamabad home.

Musharraf cited a hostile judiciary and rising militancy as the reasons for the emergency.

He briefed army commanders yesterday, 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.

But critics say Musharraf wanted to pre-empt a possible Supreme Court invalidation of his October 6 presidential election victory because he had contested it while still army chief.

Musharraf has said elections would be held by February 15, about a month later than they were due. He has also said he would quit as army chief and be sworn in as a civilian president once new judges had struck down challenges to his re-election.

The United States has kept up pressure on Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless 1999 coup, to return to a democratic path. But US pressure is constrained as Musharraf is a close ally in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

US President George W Bush said yesterday he was taking Musharraf at his word that elections would be held in early 2008.

''We do share a common goal, and that is to eradicate al Qaeda,'' Bush told a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at his Texas ranch.

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.

REUTERS GL DS1325

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