Pakistan's Bhutto detained ahead of mass protest

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LAHORE/LONDON, Nov 13 (Reuters) Pakistani police put opposition leader Benazir Bhutto under house arrest for a week early today as the Commonwealth threatened suspension unless President Pervez Musharraf repealed a state of emergency.

Military ruler Musharraf set off a storm of criticism when he imposed emergency rule on November 3. He suspended the constitution, sacked most judges, locked up lawyers, rounded up thousands of opposition and rights activists and curbed the media.

The Commonwealth, a 53-member body consisting mainly of former British colonies, gave Musharraf until November 22 to end emergency rule and take other steps to address his country's problems, or Pakistan would face suspension.

The crisis in nuclear-armed Pakistan has raised fears about its stability and its ability to focus on battling Islamist militants.

Two-time prime minister Bhutto planned to lead a ''long march'' motorcade the 270 km from Lahore to the capital Islamabad to demand that Musharraf quit as army chief, end emergency rule, reinstate the constitution and free detained activists -- including many from her party.

Yesterday, she urged Pakistanis of all shades to join the procession to set off early today and vowed it would go ahead even if police tried to block her.

Around 3,000 police moved in overnight around the Lahore home of a party official where she was staying, laying out coils of barbed wire, setting up barricades and blocking streets with trucks and tractors. An detention order was pasted on the gate.

A senior government official said her procession would not be allowed and police said they would use force on her supporters if need be.

HOUSE ''A JAIL'' ''Her residence is an official jail now,'' said a senior police officer at the scene after daybreak as officers in riot vests and carrying batons descended from buses to man the barricades set up around a 1-km perimeter.

''So no one can come out, and no one can meet her,'' he said.

''If they try to take the law into their own hands, then we will resort to all means necessary, including charging with batons and tear gas.'' A party spokeswoman vowed the protest would go ahead.

''Our plan is on. Definitely she'll try to come out. We will start our procession from here and if they try to stop us, the whole of Punjab will be a battleground,'' said the spokeswoman, Fazana Raja.

Police have said Bhutto could be the target of a suicide assassination bid, like the one that killed 139 people at a rally last month welcoming her back from eight years in self-exile.

Last week, police blocked her from leaving her Islamabad home to hold a rally in the nearby city of Rawalpindi.

Musharraf has come under mounting pressure from Western allies to set Pakistan back on the path to democracy.

He said on Sunday general elections would be held by January 9 but he declined to say when the constitution would be restored.

The emergency would ensure a free and fair vote, he said.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and US President George W Bush both urged Musharraf on Monday to lift the emergency.

FREE, FAIR POLL URGED ''The president thinks (they) need to lift the emergency rule in order to have free and fair elections,'' White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters.

The Commonwealth made the threat to suspend Pakistan at a meeting in London. While suspension would be largely symbolic, it could have implications for development assistance.

Pakistan was suspended in 1999 following the military coup that brought Musharraf to power but readmitted in 2004 after progress on democratic reforms.

''If after a review of progress Pakistan has failed to implement these necessary measures, it will suspend Pakistan from the councils of the Commonwealth,'' Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon told reporters in London.

Among the measures demanded were the immediate repeal of emergency laws, restoration of the constitution and release of detainees. The Commonwealth also called on Musharraf to step down as army chief and for immediate progress on holding fair elections.

Musharraf justified the emergency by saying a meddling judiciary was hampering the battle against militants.

Diplomats say his main objective was to stop the Supreme Court from ruling invalid his October 6 re-election by legislative assemblies dominated by his supporters.

Musharraf has said he would step down as army chief and be sworn in as a civilian president as soon as the Supreme Court, where new judges seen as friendly to the government have been appointed, ruled on challenges to his election.

The International Crisis Group think-tank and the opposition said proper elections would be impossible under an emergency.

A Western diplomat said Musharraf knew that too.

''I don't think Musharraf is actually naive enough to hold elections under the emergency. They wouldn't be credible,'' he said, adding he expected Musharraf to step down from the army and take his oath of office as a civilian president this week.

REUTERS CS KKP1036

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