Pakistani caretaker PM due; clashes erupt

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 15 (Reuters) - Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was expected to announce a caretaker government today to oversee elections he has promised for January but the opposition says they will be a sham under emergency rule.

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. The president was due to name an interim administration very soon.

''We don't expect fair and free elections under General Musharraf and his mini martial law,'' said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for opposition leader Benazir Bhutto's party.

Army chief Musharraf, struggling to secure another term as president, imposed emergency rule on November 3, suspending the constitution, banishing hostile judges, rounding up thousands of opponents and curbing the media.

Small protests have flared across the country 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. Bhutto's party said the boys were its supporters.

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.

POSSIBLE VOTE BOYCOTT The opposition dismisses the notion of elections under a state of emergency. Bhutto said the possibility of a vote boycott would be discussed at an opposition meeting next week.

With Musharraf responsible for appointing the caretaker team, newspapers have tipped the chairman of the Senate, Mohammadmian Soomro, as interim prime minister.

The former banker and ruling party member is unlikely to win a wholehearted welcome from the opposition who are demanding a neutral interim administration.

''Even if the people are known to be of integrity and independent it won't make much difference because the entire environment of the election process is questionable,'' Babar said.

US 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 US 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 (and) our view that the government of Pakistan needs to move as rapidly as possible to restore the normal democratic order,'' said the diplomat, Brian Hunt.

He reiterated a US call for Musharraf to quit as army chief and for free elections to be held quickly. He also called for detainees to be freed.

But Bhutto supporters, including a party 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.

DESPONDENT 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 due to validate the vote, and Musharraf to quit the army, by the end of the month.

Two of four main national news channels banished from cable services under the emergency were allowed back today, after agreeing to abide by broadcasting rules, a minister said.

The BBC and CNN also reappeared.

REUTERS PY VC2116

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