Pakistan eases emergency as Musharraf goes to Saudi

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 20 (Reuters) Pakistan freed thousands of lawyers and opposition activists today who had been held under emergency powers as President Pervez Musharraf met leaders in Saudi Arabia, where his old foe Nawaz Sharif lives in exile.

General Musharraf has been under pressure from the opposition and Western governments to revoke the emergency rule he imposed on Nov.

3 and ensure elections in January are fair.

In a sign that the emergency was being relaxed, Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said about 3,400 detainees had been released by today and 2,000 more would be freed soon.

Musharraf, increasingly isolated at home, flew to Saudi Arabia leaving a trail of speculation that he would reach out to Sharif, the prime minister he deposed in a 1999 coup, who is now living in exile in the Saudi city of Jeddah.

Musharraf was accompanied by Lieutenant-General Nadeem Taj, head of the main Inter-Services Intelligence agency, in talks with Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz. They agreed on joint measures to combat terrorism, Pakistan's state news agency said.

Musharraf also met King Abdullah, and was expected to pass through Jeddah on his way to pilgrimage in Mecca.

The sudden visit raised speculation that Musharraf could court Sharif as prospects for a post-election power-sharing deal with Benazir Bhutto, another ex-prime minister, have receded.

Sharif told Reuters from Jeddah yesterday that he would not meet Musharraf unless the emergency was rolled back. He said he had rebuffed several overtures to meet since September.

BECOMING CIVILIAN PRESIDENT The Election Commission said the parliamentary election would be on Jan. 8, the date chosen by Musharraf.

But vote may lack credibility if the emergency remains in place.

Opposition parties say it cannot be free and fair and are considering whether to boycott it.

Bhutto met party colleagues in Karachi and said the party would announce its decision in the next day or two.

She also said her party would welcome any talks between Musharraf and Sharif.

Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times, believed Musharraf had gone to Riyadh to ask the Saudi authorities to ensure Sharif remained in exile until at least after the election.

''The last thing he wants is Nawaz Sharif coming back in this highly charged environment,'' said Sethi, adding that Musharraf's best bet for support still lay with Bhutto.

Musharraf let her return to Pakistan last month without fear of prosecution in a number of graft cases, which she says are unfounded.

One of Sharif's main demands is restoration of the judiciary, as Musharraf has used the emergency to purge the Supreme Court of judges who might have annulled his re-election.

Yesterday the court, now packed with judges friendly to Musharraf, struck down five challenges to his re-election last month. The last one will be heard on Thursday.

Once it clears the way, Musharraf has promised to step down as army chief and take the oath as a civilian president.

ARMY OPERATION A US State Department spokesman said the release of some detainees was a ''positive step'' but that the emergency should be lifted and the media allowed to operate freely.

Some of the most prominent opposition figures, including lawyer and former minister Aitzaz Ahsan and cricketer-turned- politician Imran Khan, are still in custody.

''While peaceful protests are a part of democratic process, the federal and provincial governments shall not brook any attempt to create disturbances in the run-up to elections,'' Interior Ministry spokesman Cheema said.

Riot police used batons to break up a protest by journalists against media curbs in Karachi, injuring at least four and detaining more than 100. All were later freed, reporters said.

Western governments fear that stifling democracy could play into the hands of Islamist militants threatening to destabilise nuclear-armed Pakistan, but do not want to undermine a moderate Muslim leader who has been crucial to fighting al Qaeda.

The army is currently operating in Swat, a valley in northwest Pakistan, against militants sympathetic to Osama bin Laden's cause.

Troops killed 15 Islamist fighters on Tuesday, while four villagers were killed by a mortar bomb. Casualties have risen to nearly 300 since late October.

REUTERS RSA KN2352

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