ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s party said on Thursday that police had arrested thousands of its activists overnight, hours after U.S. President George W. Bush urged President Pervez Musharraf to hold elections and quit as army chief.
Police had already detained hundreds of lawyers and other opposition figures and supporters since General Musharraf imposed emergency rule and suspended the constitution on Saturday. “They have raided homes of our activists across Punjab throughout the night. The number of people arrested is now in the thousands,” said Farzana Raja, a party spokeswoman in the Punjab province.
Aftab Cheema, a senior police officer in Lahore, confirmed that 150 PPP activists had been picked up in the provincial capital and similar action was being taken elsewhere in Punjab.
Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party plans to hold a public meeting in Rawalpindi, adjoining the capital Islamabad, on Friday to protest over emergency rule. Bhutto has threatened a mass motorcade from Lahore on Nov. 13 unless Musharraf backs down.
Police have warned the party that rallies are banned. “All kind of rallies have been banned because we have reports from intelligence agencies that 7 to 8 suicide bombers have sneaked into Punjab,” Saud Aziz, Rawalpindi police chief, told Reuters. “We don’t want a repeat of the Karachi incident,” he said, referring to a suicide attack last month in the southern city during a procession to mark Bhutto’s homecoming after eight years of self-imposed exile. At least 139 people were killed.
The Karachi stock market fell 1.8 percent by early afternoon on Thursday as Bhutto’s protest threat stoked uncertainty.
The market had held steady for a couple of days after a fall of 4.6 percent on Monday in reaction to the emergency, and the benchmark index is now around 10 percent off its historic high reached on Oct. 22.
Bush spoke directly with Musharraf overnight for the first time since the ruler of nuclear-armed Pakistan imposed the state of emergency, citing a hostile judiciary and rising militancy.
The United States had hoped Bhutto would share power with Musharraf after elections due in January, but the imposition of the emergency left U.S. policy toward Pakistan in disarray, as Musharraf has been a valued asset in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban.
“I had a very frank discussion with him,” Bush said of Musharraf. “My message was that we believe strongly in elections and that you ought to have elections soon and you need to take off your uniform. You can’t be the president and the head of the military at the same time,” Bush told a news conference.
The Pakistani government gave its own account of the call. “President Bush showed understanding when the president
informed him about the difficult circumstances that led to the proclamation of emergency in the country,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. “President Bush praised President Musharraf’s leadership and Pakistan’s critical role in fighting terrorism and extremism,” it added, saying that Musharraf in any case planned to return to democratic rule and hold early elections.
Pakistan government officials have said the January elections would be held on time. But Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, has yet to personally confirm this.
Washington has said it will review aid to Pakistan, which has totalled nearly $10 billion since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
A senior Pentagon general said the U.S. military was worried about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons after the imposition of emergency rule. “Any time there is a nation that has nuclear weapons that has experienced a situation such as Pakistan is at present, that is a primary concern,” Lieutenant General Carter Ham, director of operations for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters.
Musharraf’s main motive in imposing emergency rule and suspending the constitution appears to have been the removal of judges viewed as hostile to the government, analysts say.
Ousted chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry is being held incommunicado at his residence in Islamabad.
The Supreme Court had been hearing challenges to the legality of Musharraf’s Oct. 6 re-election by parliament while still army chief. Fears the decision could have gone against the general were believed to have been the main reason for his move.
The United States and Britain were joined by the 27-nation European Union in urging Musharraf to release all political detainees, including members of the judiciary, relax media curbs, and seek reconciliation with political opponents.
Britain has warned Pakistan that it could face suspension from the Commonwealth unless Musharraf ends emergency rule and holds free and fair elections.