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Musharraf under pressure over polls

Pakistan's military ruler Pervez Musharraf promised to push ahead with elections amid international outrage on Tuesday over his emergency rule, with the United States demanding a return to democracy.

Nov 06, 2007, 09.43 AM IST
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's military ruler Pervez Musharraf promised to push ahead with elections amid international outrage on Tuesday over his emergency rule, with the United States demanding a return to democracy.

With images of police firing tear gas and beating protesters going around the world and warnings of a break in foreign aid, the president said January's planned polls would be held "as close as possible to the schedule."

US President George W Bush called on Musharraf, a key ally in the battle against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, to end the state of emergency, quit as army chief and restore democratic rule.

"We expect there to be elections as soon as possible and that the president should remove his military uniform," Bush said.

"Our hope is that he will restore democracy as quickly as possible." On Monday, dozens of lawyers were wounded and hundreds in the first major show of public dissent since Musharraf imposed a state of emergency Saturday, citing a crisis caused by Islamic extremist violence and hostile judges.

Officials said 1,500 people had been arrested since then. "Police have detained potential troublemakers, law-breakers and those who defied a ban on rallies," interior ministry spokesman Javed Cheema said.

The biggest protest was in Lahore, where lawyers with bleeding head wounds were bundled into vans after police fired tear gas at around 1,000 protesters outside the high court.

In Karachi, police and paramilitary soldiers charged at lawyers, detaining another 100. Clashes were also reported in Rawalpindi, Multan and Peshawar.

In a sign of the raging uncertainty gripping the nuclear-armed nation, the government was obliged to deny rumours Musharraf had been placed under house arrest by his own armed forces.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon was "greatly concerned" at the situation and has urged Musharraf to free detainees immediately and restore democracy, his spokeswoman said.

As well as declaring emergency rule, Musharraf suspended the constitution, sacked the nation's chief justice and brought in media controls -- measures he said were needed to stop Pakistan committing "suicide."

The Supreme Court had been about to rule on the legality of his October 6 presidential election win, and government jitters over the verdict are widely thought to have precipitated the move.

The focus now is on January's parliamentary vote. "Efforts are to stay as close as possible to the schedule of elections," presidential spokesman Rashid Qureshi quoted Musharraf as telling ambassadors in a briefing.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz was more categorical, telling state media the elections would be on schedule.

Former premier Benazir Bhutto -- who had been in talks on a power-sharing deal with Musharraf -- called on him to release the detained and stick to his election plan.

"I want elections to be held on time," Bhutto added. "Elections should be completed by 16 January."

Attorney General Malik Mohammad Qayyum said that the national and provincial assemblies would be dissolved on November 15 for polls by mid-January.

He said the government had no immediate plans to withdraw emergency rule, "particularly in view of the law and order situation in the disturbed parts of the country."

Qayyum said Musharraf would quit as army chief before he takes the oath of office for a second five-year term but gave no date. "The day the president is sworn in as head of the state he will be a civilian president."

The White House said Washington's aid to Pakistan was "under review," but strongly suggested there would be no reduction.

Pakistan is on the front line of the US-led "war on terror," and since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States it has been given more than 10 billion dollars in US military assistance.

However the European Union warned of "possible further steps" to be taken against Islamabad while Britain said it was "considering the implications" of emergency rule for development and other aid programmes.
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