Pakistan frees thousands held under emergency

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 20 (Reuters) Pakistan has begun releasing more than 5,000 lawyers, opposition and rights activists detained under emergency powers invoked by President Pervez Musharraf two weeks ago, the Interior Ministry said today.

Army chief General Musharraf has been under pressure from the opposition, the United States and Western governments to roll back the emergency he announced on Nov 3 and ensure elections in January are held under free and fair conditions.

Around 3,400 detainees were released today and some 2,000 more would be released soon, Javed Iqbal Cheema, the Interior Ministry spokesman, told a news conference.

How far this relaxation goes will be clear if the authorities start rearresting people for holding election campaign rallies that could turn into anti-Musharraf protests, analysts said.

''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,'' Cheema said.

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

''It looks like General Musharraf is trying hard to open channels with Sharif,'' Shafqat Mahmood, a former minister turned analyst, remarked on the sudden two-day visit.

''He's been never more weak than now. He's been condemned internationally, locally, civil society, everybody is after him,'' Mahmood said.

DANGEROUS MILITANTS Western governments fear that stifling democracy any longer could play into the hands of Islamist militants who are already a dangerous influence in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

But the West has stopped well short of threatening any measures that could destabilise a moderate Muslim leader who has been crucial to fighting al Qaeda.

The Election Commission announced today that parliamentary polls would be held on Jan 8, the date chosen by Musharraf, but the unpopular military leader has been warned the election will lack credibility if the emergency remains in place.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court, packed with government-friendly judges, struck down five challenges to Musharraf's re-election last month. The last one will be heard on Thursday.

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

Musharraf is widely believed to have declared the emergency in order to purge the court of judges who might have annulled his re-election. One of Sharif's key demands is restoration of the judiciary.

Sharif told Reuters from Jeddah yesterday he would not meet Musharraf unless the emergency was rolled back, and he had rebuffed approaches for a meeting in the last 2 { months.

SMOKESCREEN Many Pakistanis regarded that as a smokescreen for some kind of communication, if not a face-to-face meeting.

''It is only logical that they will have indirect contact,'' said Nasim Zehra, an independent political analyst.

Zehra believes Musharraf is retracing some of his steps since the emergency sparked international outrage and isolation at home, and argues that re-engaging former foes makes sense.

On arrival in Riyadh, Musharraf was met by Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and intelligence chief Murqin bin Abdul-Aziz, who had visited Islamabad in September, days before Sharif tried to return to Pakistan only to be put on a flight back to exile.

Musharraf was leaving in the evening for the western Saudi city of Jeddah, from where he was expected to perform a pilgrimage to Mecca, the holy city of Islam.

Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times and another leading analyst, took a contrary view, believing Musharraf's real intention was to plead with the Saudi authorities to guarantee Sharif's exile there until at least after the election.

''The last thing he wants is Nawaz Sharif coming back in this highly charged environment,'' said Sethi, who believes Musharraf's best bet of shoring up support remains some understanding with Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, although prospects for a deal receded after the emergency was announced.

Political uncertainties were reflected on the Karachi stock market index, which though flat today, was nearly five per cent below its pre-emergency levels and 11 per cent off life highs, while still 32 per cent up since the start of the year.

REUTERS PD KP1647

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