ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – Pakistan announced plans to lift its state of emergency within one month and allowed opposition leader Benazir Bhutto to leave her villa following a day under house arrest, as the country sought Saturday to restore its battered image at home and abroad.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf insists he called the week-old emergency to help fight Islamic extremists who control swathes of territory near the Afghan border, but the main targets of his subsequent crackdown have been his most outspoken critics, including the increasingly independent courts and media.
Thousands of people have been arrested, TV news stations taken off air, and judges removed.
The government, under mounting pressure from the United States and other Western allies to follow through with promises to restore democracy, has announced that parliamentary elections initially slated for January would be held no more than a month later. And Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum told The Associated Press on Saturday that the state of emergency would “end within one month.” He provided no further details and would not say when a formal announcement might come.
Security forces threw a cordon around Bhutto’s villa in an upscale neighborhood of the capital Friday, and rounded up thousands of her supporters to prevent a planned demonstration against the crackdown. But she was allowed to leave her home 24 hours later, traveling to a meeting with party colleagues. Aides said she would meet later with foreign diplomats to discuss the political crisis.
The restrictions on Bhutto dimmed the prospect of her forming a U.S.-friendly alliance with Musharraf against militants who have seized control of an ever-greater area of northwestern Pakistan.
U.S. officials have expressed concern that the political crisis will actually distract Pakistan from that task, and NATO said Saturday that insurgents had killed six American troops in eastern Afghanistan. They called on him to lift the restrictions on Bhutto. However, the Bush administration continues to describe the general as an “indispensable” ally against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, suggesting it is unlikely to yield to calls from some lawmakers in Washington for cuts in its generous aid to Pakistan, much of it to the powerful military.
Bhutto, for her part, has left open the possibility of re-entering talks with Musharraf on issues including her wish to serve a third term as prime minister of this nuclear-armed nation of more than 160 million people.
On Saturday morning, police pulled aside the metal barriers blocking the street leading to her villa to let her four-vehicle convoy pass.
Three police cars escorted her to the headquarters of her Pakistan People’s Party for a meeting with other leaders. Many critics say the main goal of Musharraf’s emergency was to pre-empt a Supreme Court ruling on the legality of his victory in a presidential election last month. Under the constitution, public servants cannot run for office.
Qayyum, the attorney general, said the court, now purged of its more independent-minded justices, would swear in more judges in the next two or three days, bringing it up to the strength required to restart hearings in the case.
Musharraf says he will quit his post as army chief and rule as a civilian once the court has confirmed his re-election, but set no date for that step.