ISLAMABAD, Nov 15 (Reuters) Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf appointed today the chairman of the upper house Senate as caretaker prime minister to oversee general elections the opposition says it doubts can be free and fair.
As expected, Senate chairman and ruling party member Mohammadmian Soomro will head a caretaker line-up that will be sworn in tomorrow said Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, a close Musharraf ally.
But opposition party officials said no matter who heads the caretaker administration, elections that army chief Musharraf has promised for early January won't be free and fair under emergency rule he imposed on November 3.
Struggling to secure another term of office in the face of legal challenges, he suspended the constitution, fired judges seen as hostile to his rule, rounded up thousands of opposition politicians and rights activists and curbed the media.
''We totally reject it. This appointment, in fact, is part of General Musharraf's scheme to perpetuate his rule,'' said Mushahidullah Khan, vice president of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's party.
The National Assembly -- which critics say is a pro-Musharraf rubber stamp convened after what they say were rigged polls in 2002 -- completes its term today.
Another former prime minister and opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto, has said the possibility of a vote boycott would be discussed at an opposition meeting next week.
Soomro is a former banker. The full cabinet list would be issued later although television channels said several Musharraf loyalists had been appointed.
CLASHES Small protests have flared across the country since the emergency was declared and, while police have used batons and tear gas, there had been no major violence.
Then today two boys were killed and four policemen wounded when police and unidentified gunmen battled in Karachi during protests by Bhutto activists, police said.
With the United States and other allies demanding speedy steps towards democracy in nuclear-armed Pakistan, Musharraf promised to hold parliamentary elections by January 9, but he has not said when the constitution would be restored.
Nor has he said when the state of emergency would be lifted, insisting it was necessary to ensure a free and fair vote.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who last week warned against cutting aid to an ''indispensable'' ally, is due in Pakistan this week to press Musharraf to end the emergency.
A U.S. diplomat visited two-time prime minister Bhutto in Lahore where she has been under house arrest since she tried to launch a protest procession on Tuesday.
''I conveyed to the former prime minister the continuing US government concerns about the state of emergency,'' the diplomat, Brian Hunt, told reporters. He reiterated a US call for Musharraf to quit as army chief and hold free polls.
He also called for detainees to be freed but more Bhutto supporters, including a top leader, were detained as police broke up protests in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar.
Three sisters of detained cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan were held during a protest in Lahore, a witness said.
Many Pakistanis are despondent.
''Life is so difficult because of all this political squabbling,'' said Lahore guest house worker Mian Mazharullah.
''The leaders don't focus on the needs of the people.'' Pakistani shares ended 1.5 per cent lower and the rupee was trading at a three-year low.
Musharraf, in power since a 1999 coup, had been due to quit the army by November 15 but that was before the Supreme Court took up challenges to his October 6 re-election by loyalist legislators.
He now says he will 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, dismisses the challenges. The attorney general said the court was expected to validate the vote before the end of the month.
Two of four national news channels banished from cable services under the emergency aired again after agreeing to abide by broadcasting rules. The BBC and CNN also reappeared.
REUTERS PY VC2312