ISLAMABAD, Nov 18 (Reuters) US envoy John Negroponte said today he had urged Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to end emergency rule, warning it was ''not compatible'' with free and fair elections due by early January and would undermine them.
The US deputy secretary of state, who met General Musharraf yesterday, praised his role in the fight against al Qaeda and Taliban militants, saying Washington valued its partnership with its ally. But he bluntly called on him to lift emergency rule.
''Emergency rule is not compatible with free, fair and credible elections,'' Negroponte, the United States' No.2 diplomat, told a news conference at the US embassy.
Negroponte said he had also called on Musharraf to release thousands of opposition figures who have been rounded up and imprisoned, and to stick to his word to quit as army chief.
''If those steps aren't taken, it will certainly undermine the government's ability to conduct satisfactory elections,'' he said.
Negroponte said reconciliation between moderate political forces -- apparently referring to a public rift between Musharraf and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto -- was ''very desirable''.
The United States had hoped the pair, seen as supportive of its war on terrorism, would share power after the election, but Bhutto has ruled out working with Musharraf and is seeking to form a political alliance with other opposition parties.
''Engagement and dialogue, not brinksmanship and confrontation, should be the order of the day for all parties,'' he said.
''If steps were taken by both sides to move back towards the kinds of reconciliation discussions that they have been having previously, we think that that would be very positive.'' Musharraf has promised elections will be held by Jan. 9, and has said he is determined to remove his army uniform and be sworn in as a civilian president once a pending Supreme Court ruling on his October re-election is out.
But he has not yet said when he will end emergency rule and reinstate the suspended constitution, or free hundreds of detained lawyers including the former chief justice -- moves analysts said were aimed at holding onto power.
Musharraf has also slapped curbs on the media, punishable by up to three years in jail, and two leading private news stations say they have been forced to close down altogether.
Scores of journalists protested outside the offices of one of the closed TV stations in Islamabad on Sunday chanting ''Your show is over Musharraf'', while similar protests were held elsewhere across the country.
The News broadsheet said Musharraf was verging on ''madness''.
''It is high time he ended this draconian reign of terror against his own people, the media and its institutions and stepped aside,'' the paper wrote in a scathing editorial.
Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless 1999 coup, has defended his decision to declare emergency rule, saying Pakistan's nuclear weapons will not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands while the military is in control of them.
Musharraf said in a BBC interview broadcast on Saturday that if elections were held in a ''disturbed environment'', it could bring in dangerous elements who might endanger Pakistan's ''strategic assets''.
''They cannot fall into the wrong hands, if we manage ourselves politically. The military is there -- as long as the military is there, nothing happens to the strategic assets, we are in charge and nobody does anything with them,'' he said.
Separately, the New York Times reported in its Sunday edition that President George W Bush's administration had spent almost 100 million dollars over the past six years on a classified programme to help Musharraf safeguard Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
Negroponte sidestepped a question on whether the US would withhold military aid to Pakistan unless Musharraf made good on his promises, describing Pakistan and then United States as two ''friendly'' countries facing common challenges.
''We welcome President Musharraf's announcement that elections will take place in January, a commitment he repeated to me yesterday in categorical terms. He also repeated his commitment to retire from his army post before commencing his second presidential term, and we urge him to do so as soon as possible.
''Recent political actions against protesters, suppression of the media and the arrests of political and human rights leaders, runs directly counter to reforms that have been undertaken in recent years ... I've urged the government of Pakistan to stop such actions, to lift the state of emergency and release all political detainees.'' Musharraf justified emergency rule citing a hostile judiciary and rising militancy. The military said around 80 people were killed in sectarian clashes between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims in a tribal region near the Afghan border on Saturday, but fighting had subsided today.
Separately, the military is set to launch a major operation in a restive northwestern valley to clear out pro-Taliban militants who have been locked in fierce fighting with troops.
REUTERS SZ RN1729