Pakistan court gives Musharraf rulings he needs

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 19 (Reuters) Pakistan's Supreme Court, packed with government-friendly judges since the imposition of emergency rule, dismissed today the main challenges to President Pervez Musharraf's re-election last month.

Once the court clears Musharraf's October 6 victory, he has promised to step down as army chief and be sworn in as a civilian president as soon as possible.

A bench of 10 judges struck down the five main challenges to Musharraf's right to have contested the election while still army chief. The sixth and final petition will be heard later this week.

''One is pending and it will be heard on Thursday,'' Attorney-General Malik Qayyum told Reuters.

Musharraf's main aim in assuming emergency powers was to purge the Supreme Court of judges he feared were about to annul his re-election as president.

Musharraf said yesterday he was asking the Election Commission to call a a parliamentary election on January 8.

''Inshallah (God willing), the general elections in the country would be held on January 8,'' the official Associated Press of Pakistan news agency quoted Musharraf as saying yesterday late evening.

But he gave no date for lifting the state of emergency, despite US pressure over the weekend to put nuclear-armed Pakistan back on a democratic track.

Negroponte warned Musharraf on Saturday that the election's credibility would suffer unless the state of emergency announced on November 3 was rolled back.

US CALL TO FREE DETAINEES Negroponte, who left Pakistan yesterday, was careful not to undermine General Musharraf, a crucial US ally in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban. But he stuck to Washington's stated position that thousands of people detained in the last two weeks should be released and curbs on the media should be lifted.

Pakistani newspapers were disparaging of Negroponte's failure to back up words with some kind of threat unless Musharraf complied.

''To see the US stick it out on the wrong side of the fence will not win the latter any approval with the people of Pakistan,'' Dawn said in an editorial today.

Negroponte said reconciliation was ''very desirable'' between moderate political forces, apparently referring to the breakdown of an understanding between Musharraf and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto for possible post-election power sharing.

US Ambassador Anne W Patterson was in Karachi today to meet Bhutto, who spoke to Negroponte by telephone during his visit to Islamabad.

''I am meeting the former prime minister and other political leaders to confirm American interest in free, fair and transparent elections and to assure her and all others that we will do everything possible to ensure that the electoral process takes place,'' Patterson told journalists at Bhutto's residence.

Bhutto said she had reiterated her concerns that polls under present conditions would not be fair.

Pakistan has received an estimated 10 billion dollars of US aid, mostly for its military, since joining a war on terrorism in late 2001.

The New York Times reported yesterday that almost 100 million dollars had been earmarked for a secret programme to help Musharraf keep his nuclear arsenal secure in a country threatened by rampant militancy.

FRONTIER FRAYING Musharraf said emergency rule would remain in place for longer to reinforce the fight against Islamist militants threatening Pakistan's stability and ensure security for polls.

However, opposition leaders, including Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister ousted by Musharraf in 1999 and later sent into exile, are considering boycotting the elections.

Meantime, the Pakistan army was expected to launch a major operation to crush a militant movement in Swat, a valley in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) where hundreds of people have been killed in clashes with security forces in the past few weeks.

Around 80 people were killed in an outbreak of sectarian violence over the weekend in Parachinar, the main town in the Kurram tribal agency bordering Afghanistan, as the security situation in the frontier region continued to deteriorate.

Parachinar has a history of clashes between Sunni Muslim tribesmen sympathetic with al Qaeda and Shi'ite Muslims, less friendly to the presence of Osama bin Laden's followers in their lands.

The army was taking control in Parachinar on Monday, while in Swat there was no sign of an operation, according to reporters in both areas.

REUTERS SYU BD1523

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