Musharraf agrees Pakistan will hold elections by mid-Feb. as protests rage

Friday, November 9, 2007
Police beat and arrest opposition protesters during a rally against Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Peshawar, Pakistan on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2007. Former Prime Minister Benzair Bhutto denounced a pledge from Musharraf to hold elections by mid-February as insufficient and said he should step down as army chief within a week. (AP Photo/Mohammad Zubair)

The military leader showed no sign of letting up on his political foes, however.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- President Gen. Pervez Musharraf yielded to pressure from the United States on Thursday and said Pakistan will hold parliamentary elections by mid-February, just a month later than originally planned.

But the military leader showed no sign of letting up on his political foes, reportedly arresting more than 800 supporters of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto before dawn in an effort to head off a major anti-government demonstration set for Friday.

The White House hailed its ally's election pledge, but Bhutto denounced his announcement as "vague" and demanded Musharraf give up his second post as army chief within a week. She said the mass protest would go ahead despite warnings it could be targeted by suicide bombers.

Bhutto is leader of Pakistan's biggest party and her decision to join in anti-government protests was another blow for Musharraf, who has seen his popularity slide this year amid growing resentment of military rule and increasing violence by Islamic militants.

In a fourth day of protests against the general's imposition of emergency rule over the weekend, lawyers rallied peacefully in Islamabad, while demonstrators clashed with police in the border city of Peshawar.

Musharraf has been under increasing pressure to quickly hold elections and resign as army commander since he suspended the constitution Saturday. He said emergency measures were needed to calm political instability he claims is hampering the fight with Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants.

President Bush, who counts the Pakistani leader as a key ally in the war with extremist groups, personally got involved Wednesday, telling Musharraf in a phone conversation that "the United States wants you to have the elections as scheduled and take your uniform off."

Some Pakistani officials had said earlier the election could be delayed by up to a year, but Musharraf went on state-run TV to announce the ballot would "be held before Feb. 15." He wore a blue business suit rather than his general's uniform.

"We think it is a good thing that President Musharraf has clarified the election date for the Pakistani people," said a statement from the Bush administration, which has been pressing him to return the country to civilian government.

Despite that pressure, Pakistani officials denied Musharraf's election decision was made because of the American demands or the spreading anger among Pakistanis frustrated by military rule.

Critics contend Musharraf suspended the constitution, blacked out dozens of TV news channels and ousted independent-minded judges to maintain his own grip on power, which he seized with a 1999 coup.

His emergency decree came as the Supreme Court was expected to rule on the legality of his re-election as president last month in a vote by legislators. Opponents say it was unconstitutional for him to be a presidential candidate because he also holds the powerful post of army chief.

In his TV appearance, Musharraf said he would be sworn in for a new five-year presidential term and resign as army commander once the Supreme Court -- now purged of his sharpest critics -- validates the vote.

Analysts predicted emergency measures would be lifted very soon after that happens. They noted it would be necessary to ease security restrictions to allow election campaigning, because the emergency rules make it illegal to hold public gatherings.

In defiance of that ban, Bhutto called for a huge anti-Musharraf demonstration Friday in Rawalpindi, a garrison town on the southern outskirts of the capital, and there were fears it could turn violent.

It would be her first rally since Oct. 18, when she returned after eight years in self-imposed exile to lead her party in the parliamentary elections. Her celebratory procession was shattered by suicide bombings that killed more than 145 people. Islamic militants were widely blamed.

Bhutto, a two-time prime minister, had been talking with Musharraf about a post-election alliance of moderate, pro-Western forces, but she pulled back after he imposed emergency rule. She said his authoritarian ways have fueled extremism and further destabilized this country of 160 million people.

"We want an election date, we want a retirement date" for Musharraf to quit his military post, Bhutto told reporters after hearing the president's election statement. "This is a vague statement. We want the uniform off by Nov. 15."

Bhutto planned to address supporters Friday at a rally in Rawalpindi's Liaquat Bagh park -- named for Pakistan's first prime minister, who was assassinated there in 1951.

Nearly two dozen policemen were posted at the park Thursday to keep people out as the city's police chief warned that suicide bombers were preparing another strike at Bhutto.

"We have intelligence reports that suicide bombers have entered Rawalpindi," Saud Aziz said, adding that the warning was based on specific information. "The situation is very serious," he said.

Most protests this week have been quickly and sometime violently suppressed. Thousands of people have been arrested, most of them human right workers, political activists and lawyers.

Bhutto's spokesman, Jamil Soomro, said at least 800 of her party members had been rounded up late Wednesday and early Thursday across the eastern province of Punjab. Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema, disputed that, saying only four had been detained.

Four other people were arrested and charged with treason, which carries a maximum penalty of death, for making anti-Musharraf speeches. The men -- three politicians and a labor union activist in the southern city of Karachi -- were the first to face that charge since the emergency decree.

As arrests continued, there were mixed signals from the government about its intention to maintain the restrictions imposed on television news channels under Musharraf's crackdown.

Authorities lifted a ban on foreign news channels Thursday, and BBC, CNN and other channels were again being shown in Islamabad. But police in Karachi shut down some 50 shops selling satellite TV dishes and confiscated the equipment, witnesses said.

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