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Pakistan Elections to Be Held by Mid-February

Pakistani students march against the imposition of emergency rule in a protest in Islamabad on Wednesday.
Farooq Naeem
Pakistani students march against the imposition of emergency rule in a protest in Islamabad on Wednesday.

Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said Thursday that parliamentary elections will be held by mid-February, a signal that the state of emergency rule he declared could soon end.

Musharraf has been under growing pressure from the United States and his political opponents to end the emergency declared Saturday and hold elections in January, when they were originally scheduled.

State-run Pakistan television flashed the news that Musharraf had announced that the elections would be delayed by not more than one month after a meeting of his National Security Council.

Musharraf Says He's Committed to Democracy

On Wednesday, President Bush urged Pakistan's military leader to hold parliamentary elections and relinquish his military post during a 20-minute conversation. Bush said he told Musharraf, "You can't be the president and the head of the military at the same time."

"My message was very plain, very easy to understand, and that is, the United States wants you to have the elections as scheduled and take your uniform off," Bush said.

A statement from the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in its war on terrorism, told Bush he "was committed to full democracy and civilian rule in the country as he had promised the people of Pakistan."

The aim of the emergency declaration is to prevent political instability, protect economic growth, and maintain the campaign against extremism and terrorism, the statement said.

But critics maintain that Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, imposed the emergency measures to maintain his own grip on power. The moves came ahead of a Supreme Court ruling on the legality of his recent re-election as president.

Meanwhile, leaders of the opposition party claimed that hundreds of its supporters were detained overnight to head off a major protest against emergency rule.

Opposition leaders said police arrested at least 800 supporters of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto across the eastern province of Punjab. The arrests came before a rally Bhutto is planning in Rawalpindi on Friday, said Jamil Soomro, a spokesman for Bhutto.

But government officials denied the arrests, saying Thursday that no such crackdown had been ordered.

"According to my information, only four members from her party were detained last night when they defied a ban on rallies," said Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema.

Three Charged with Treason

Thousands of lawyers and opposition activists have been detained since Musharraf declared a state of emergency on Saturday, suspending the constitution and giving authorities sweeping powers. The government also has blacked out independent TV news networks.

On Thursday, three leftist politicians and a union leader were charged with treason for making anti-government speeches in Karachi, a court official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

The men were the first to be reported charged with treason, which carries a maximum sentence of death if convicted, since Musharraf declared the state of emergency.

Bhutto has urged party activists to protest, deepening uncertainty in the country. Her supporters, who clashed with police near Pakistan's parliament Wednesday, said they would hold a mass rally Friday in Rawalpindi, a city on Islamabad's outskirts.

Rawalpindi Mayor Javed Akhlas said police would be out in force to prevent anyone from reaching the park where Bhutto hoped to address supporters. The garrison city has also been the scene of recent suicide bombings.

Bhutto's homecoming procession last month following eight years in exile was targeted by suicide bombers, leaving more than 145 people dead. Authorities blame Islamic militants for that attack and warn they could strike again.

Political Situation Worsens

Bhutto's decision to join in the protests added a new dimension to worsening political instability, as anger at military rule has spread.

With U.S. encouragement, Musharraf had been negotiating with Bhutto on forming an anti-militant political alliance and sharing power after parliamentary elections. The talks resulted in the dropping of corruption charges against Bhutto, paving the way for her return last month.

Elections had been scheduled for January, but senior officials are hinting that they now expect a delay of two or three months. The government has said that under the emergency, they could be pushed back by as much as a year, but no date has been set for the vote.

With the elections on hold, Bhutto has pulled back from the negotiations. She said Musharraf's authoritarian ways have fueled extremism and destabilized the country, but that talks with him could resume if he ends emergency rule.

Pakistan, a country of 160 million, has been wracked by Taliban and al-Qaida-linked violence, including suicide bombings and clashes in its troubled northwest.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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