ISLAMABAD, (Reuters) – Pakistani police blocked opposition leader Benazir Bhutto from leaving her home in Islamabad on Friday and sealed off the capital and nearby city of Rawalpindi to stop a rally against President Pervez Musharraf.
Bhutto, the politician most capable of galvanising mass protests against Musharraf’s imposition of emergency rule, tried to breach a cordon and appealed to police to let her through. “The government has been paralysed,” Bhutto shouted to supporters across a barbed-wire barricade. Two buses and an armoured personnel carrier blocked the road outside her house. “If he restores the constitution, takes off his uniform, gives up the office of the chief of army staff and announces an election by Jan. 15, then it’s okay,” she said, vowing defiance if he failed to comply. She then returned to her residence.
Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless 1999 coup, said on Thursday elections would be held by Feb. 15, about a month later than they were due. He also said he would quit as army chief and be sworn in as a civilian president once new judges appointed to the Supreme Court struck down challenges against his re-election. It remains to be seen whether Musharraf, who had viewed Bhutto as a potential ally, can control events set in train by his shock decision last Saturday to impose emergency rule and suspend the constitution. He has sacked most of the country’s judges, putting senior officials — including former chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry — under house arrest, and ordered police to round up the majority of the opposition leadership. And anyone else deemed troublesome.
An Interior Ministry spokesman said 2,500 people had been detained since the emergency was declared at the weekend, though Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party say 5,000 of their activists have been picked up in the past couple of days.
Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in Rawalpindi, where Bhutto planned to lead a rally. Barbed-wire barricades were erected on all roads leading to the venue.
Railways Minister and close Musharraf ally, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, told Reuters Bhutto’s detention was temporary — officials said three days — and was meant to protect her from suicide bomb attacks, as well as stop her going to Rawalpindi. A suicide bomb attack killed 139 people at a procession in Karachi to welcome Bhutto’s return to Pakistan after eight years of self-imposed exile on Oct. 18.
The government blamed Islamist militants angry at her backing of Musharraf’s alliance with the United States. Bhutto has also planned a motorcade from Lahore on Nov. 13 as part of a mass agitation.
Under fire from Western allies and the international community, and with an angry Bhutto on his doorstep, Musharraf has become increasingly isolated, fuelling concern about instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan. “The concern I have is that the longer the internal problems continue, the more distracted the Pakistani army and security services will be in terms of the internal situation rather than focusing on the terrorist threat in the frontier area,” U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Friday.
A suspected suicide blast at the home of the Minister of Political Affairs, Amir Muqam, in the northwestern city of Peshawar killed three people on Friday, state-run Pakistan Television said. The minister was unhurt.
Police had earlier wielded batons and fired teargas to disperse hundreds of opposition protesters in Peshawar and a nearby town on Friday, police and witnesses said.
A group of former world leaders, including Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter, has denounced Musharraf’s authoritarian steps.
The group, called the Elders, issued a statement of support for “all those freedom-loving Pakistanis who have chosen to join in peaceful expressions of opposition to these dictatorial acts”.