LAHORE, Pakistan, Nov 16 (Reuters) Pakistan freed opposition leader Benazir Bhutto from house arrest early today, hours after a caretaker prime minister was appointed in a first step towards a national election.
Jail officials left the residence in the eastern city of Lahore where Bhutto has been held to prevent her from leading a pro-democracy rally against President Pervez Musharraf's emergency rule.
But several hundred police with assault rifles, batons and riot vests lined the street and said no-one -- including Bhutto party members -- were allowed past metal and barbed wire barricades.
''The government has withdrawn Bhutto's detention order, and from now, she is free to move wherever she likes,'' Aftab Cheema, police chief of the eastern city of Lahore, told Reuters.
''Police will remain (outside) for her security, but there will be no restriction on her movement.'' The United States had hoped Musharraf and Bhutto would end up sharing power after a general election, but they have rounded on each other even before polls take place. Musharraf has pledged to hold the election by January 9.
Bhutto's release comes ahead of a planned visit by US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who will push General Musharraf to end the emergency rule he imposed a fortnight ago in an apparent bid to hold on to the presidency, and to free thousands of detained opposition figures.
The news was immediately welcomed in Washington.
''If it is true, then that is positive. Not only does she need to have her house arrest lifted but so do others who are important participants in Pakistan's political future,'' said US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
''Other steps need to be taken too, including the lifting of the state of emergency,'' McCormack said.
ELECTION LOOMS Musharraf appointed Senate chairman Mohammadmian Soomro, a close ally, as caretaker prime minister to oversee the election -- a move immediately criticised by his opponents.
''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 exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's party.
Struggling to secure another term of office in the face of legal challenges, Musharraf suspended the constitution, fired judges regarded as hostile to his rule, rounded up thousands of opposition politicians and rights activists, and curbed the media.
The National Assembly -- which critics say is a pro-Musharraf rubber stamp convened after what they say were rigged polls in 2002 -- completed its term yesterday.
Bhutto has said the possibility of a vote boycott would be discussed at an opposition meeting on November 21.
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 two boys were killed yesterday and four policemen wounded when police and unidentified gunmen battled in Karachi during protests by Bhutto activists, police said.
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 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.
REUTERS SG ND0955