Pakistani caretaker PM due; opposition sceptical

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 15 (Reuters) Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is expected to appoint a caretaker government today to oversee elections he has promised for January but which the opposition say will be a sham under emergency rule.

''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 Nov 3, suspending the constitution, getting rid of hostile judges, rounding up thousands of opponents and curbing the media.

With the United States and other allies demanding speedy steps towards democracy in nuclear-armed Pakistan, Musharraf promised to hold parliamentary elections by Jan 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.

Small protests have flared across the country and, while police have used batons and tear gas, there has been no major violence.

But two boys were killed today when police and unidentified gunmen exchanged fire in Karachi during protests by Bhutto supporters, police said.

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.

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 and a caretaker administration is to be set up to organise elections.

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

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

Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan said consultations had been held and he was hopeful the caretaker administration, to be sworn in tomorrow, would be acceptable.

Bhutto party spokesman Babar said they had not been consulted.

''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,'' he 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 senior 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.

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, who took power in a 1999 coup, said at the weekend 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 October re-election.

The attorney general said the court was expected to reach a ruling around the end of next week. Bhutto said Musharraf's promise to quit the army was too vague: ''We need a firm date''.

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.

CNN and the BBC were still blocked but Sky News reappeared a day after it too went off the air.

REUTERS PD KN1636

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