Pakistan opposition aims to unite against Musharraf

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 14 (Reuters) Pakistani opposition parties tried to forge a united front today against military President Pervez Musharraf who insisted a state of emergency was necessary for fair elections.

US ally Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, declared emergency rule in nuclear-armed Pakistan on November 3 when he suspended the constitution, rounded up thousands of opponents and curbed the media.

''We are ready to set aside our differences with the People's Party,'' former prime minister Nawaz Sharif told Reuters by telephone from Saudi Arabia, referring to the party of another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.

Bhutto, who had been in power-sharing talks with Musharraf for months, returned home in October from eight years of self-imposed exile and aimed to work with the president on a transition to civilian rule.

Then came the crackdown. After police stifled a protest by Bhutto yesterday and put her under house arrest, she announced her talks with Musharraf were over, and for the first time called on him to step down as president as well as army chief.

She said her party might boycott a parliamentary election Musharraf has promised to hold by January 9.

Bhutto also contacted old rivals including Islamist alliance leader Qazi Hussain Ahmed, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, whom police detained today, and Sharif's party to urge a ''coalition of interests'', party officials said.

''She's trying to unite all political parties on a minimum agenda to return the country to true democracy,'' said Latif Khosa, a senator and aide to Bhutto.

''The minimum agenda is the ouster of General Musharraf and formation of a neutral government of national consensus to organise free and fair elections.'' Sharif and Bhutto were bitter rivals during the late 1980s and 1990s. They both served two terms as Prime Minister until Musharraf ousted Sharif in 1999.

Both Bhutto and Sharif faced corruption charges.

Underscoring the difficulty of uniting a fractious opposition, students loyal to religious alliance leader Ahmed briefly detained Imran Khan when he emerged from hiding to lead a campus protest in Lahore. Police later detained Khan.

''EMERGENCY NECESSARY'' Under pressure from allies to put the country back on a path to democracy, Musharraf said at the weekend the national election would take place but he did not say when the constitution would be restored or the emergency lifted.

He said he would quit as Army Chief and be sworn in as a civilian president as soon as the Supreme Court, where judges regarded as friendly to the government have been appointed, ruled on challenges by legislators to his re-election.

The Attorney General said the court was expected to reach a ruling around the end of next week.

US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who last week warned against cutting aid to an ''indispensable'' ally, is due in Pakistan late this week to urge Musharraf to end the emergency. The President has repeatedly defended it.

''In an environment marked by terrorism and suicide attacks, the state of emergency was necessary for the holding of peaceful, free and honest elections,'' Musharraf told Le Monde on Wednesday.

Musharraf told Britain's Sky News he had considered resigning but now felt he was the man to lead Pakistan to democracy. Sky, the last foreign news channel available on cable in Pakistan, went off the air shortly after broadcasting that news.

''We continue to call on him to lift it (the state of emergency) immediately,'' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters.

''We think that would be in the best interest of the Pakistanis.'' Police have used batons and tear gas to break up small protests in various parts of the country since the emergency was declared but there has been no major violence.

Analysts say Bhutto's refusal to deal with Musharraf had isolated the president, though he retained the crucial backing of the army and the support of a disparate group of politicians expected to do badly in the polls.

Pakistani shares ended 2.24 per cent down on political worries while the rupee edged to a three-year low.

REUTERS PY BD2136

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