Bhutto keeps up pressure on Musharraf

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Islamabad, Nov 11: Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was expected to set off for the eastern city of Lahore today on the latest phase of a campaign to restore democracy in the nuclear-armed country.

Bhutto described Pakistan as a ''pressure cooker'' about to explode yesterday, while President Pervez Musharraf was due later to hold his first news conference since imposing emergency rule on November 3.

After invoking emergency powers a week ago, General Musharraf has sacked most of the country's judges, putting senior ones under house arrest, and ordered police to round up the majority of the opposition leadership, and anyone else deemed troublesome.

He has also placed curbs on media, private news channels are off the air, and transmissions of BBC and CNN have been blocked, though newspapers are publishing freely.

The government turned the screws on media tighter yesterday by telling three British journalists to get out.

''Pakistan under dictatorship is a pressure cooker,'' Bhutto said in an address to diplomats at reception hosted by loyalists at the Senate yesterday night. ''Without a place to vent, the passion of our people for liberty threatens to explode.'' Police have used batons and teargas to disperse protesters in various parts of the country but there has been no major violence.

A party spokesman, Farahatullah Babar, said Bhutto's plans had yet to be finalised but there was a great probability she would travel today to Lahore, the city where the pulse of Pakistani politics beats strongest.

Bhutto plans to lead a ''long march'' -- actually a mass motor procession -- from Lahore to Islamabad, beginning on Tuesday, to put more pressure on Musharraf to revoke emergency rule, restore the constitution and the sacked judges, quit as army chief, hold elections in January, and release thousands of detainees.


Bhutto, who had been holding power-sharing talks with Musharraf for months, was briefly placed under house arrest on Friday.

Yesterday she was stopped from meeting the deposed chief justice who has been detained at his Islamabad home.

Musharraf cited a hostile judiciary and rising militancy as the reasons for the emergency.

He briefed army commanders yesterday, telling them the emergency had been a very difficult decision but necessary to ensure effective governance, maintain efforts against terrorism and provide for a stable political transition, the military said.

But critics say Musharraf wanted to pre-empt a possible decision by the court to rule his October 6 presidential election victory invalid because he contested while army chief.

Musharraf has said elections will be held by February 15, about a month later than they were due. He also said he would quit as army chief and be sworn in as a civilian president once new judges struck down challenges to his re-election.

The United States has kept up pressure on Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless 1999 coup, to get back to a democratic path.

But US pressure is constrained as Musharraf is a close ally in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

USPresident George W Bush said yesterday he was taking Musharraf at his word that elections would be held in early 2008.

''We do share a common goal, and that is to eradicate al Qaeda,'' Bush told a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at his Texas ranch.

The United States is worried the turmoil will hamper its nuclear-armed ally's efforts against terrorism. Pakistani forces are battling a growing Islamist insurgency along the Afghan border -- where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding.


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