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Police ring Bhutto home in crackdown

Times Staff Writer

Security forces placed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto under virtual house arrest early today as a crackdown on President Pervez Musharraf’s opponents continued, a day after he bowed to enormous political pressure and pledged to hold parliamentary elections by mid-February.

Tensions and the threat of violent confrontation are likely to remain high. Bhutto vowed Thursday to press ahead with a rally planned today in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, outside Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, despite warnings from authorities that it would not be allowed and could come under attack by suicide bombers.

Police began taking up positions in Rawalpindi late Thursday in and around a park where the protest is planned, and by early today, the park’s gates were chained and bolted shut.

Roads into the city had been blocked.

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Hundreds of police officers surrounded Bhutto’s house in Islamabad. Sen. Anwar Baig of the former prime minister’s Pakistan People’s Party came out of the house and told reporters that Bhutto was being “illegally confined.”

Musharraf told state media Thursday that national and provincial balloting would take place by Feb. 15, a month later than the original deadline. But he set no date for removing his army chief uniform and becoming a civilian leader, a key demand of democracy activists.

“I have been saying for the last few months that elections will be held on schedule,” Musharraf said after meeting with his National Security Council. “It was my commitment, and I am fulfilling it.” Under Pakistan’s Constitution, the latest possible date for the polls is in fact Feb. 15.

Musharraf’s announcement came within hours of a call from President Bush urging him to call elections. It was, however, greeted with skepticism from Musharraf’s critics and political foes, who noted that police were rounding up opposition party members even as he spoke. Thousands of lawyers, judges, human rights advocates and other dissidents have been arrested since Musharraf declared a state of emergency Saturday and assumed sweeping executive powers.

“This is a vague statement. We want an election date,” said Bhutto, one of Musharraf’s chief rivals.

“We want the uniform off by Nov. 15" -- a deadline set several years ago by a Pakistani law.

Ali Dayan Hasan, who is based here in Lahore for Human Rights Watch, said: “We have no reason to believe anything that Musharraf says. This is clearly an attempt at deflecting international pressure. This is the same person who repeatedly assured the Bush administration that he would never impose a state of emergency. And yet he did.”

Bhutto’s supporters say that as many as 800 of her party’s followers were arrested Wednesday night and Thursday, after their charismatic leader abandoned her more restrained statements in favor of an open call to Pakistanis to defy emergency rule. Analysts say Bhutto, the only leader capable of mobilizing massive crowds at present, is trying carefully to turn up the heat on Musharraf without slamming the door on a possible power-sharing deal with him.

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In Washington, the White House welcomed Musharraf’s promise to call elections by mid-February. The Bush administration considers Musharraf, an army general who came to power in a 1999 coup, a crucial ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism.

“We think it is a good thing that President Musharraf has clarified the election date for the Pakistani people,” Press Secretary Dana Perino said.

Analysts said the phone call Wednesday from Bush, the first conversation between the two men since emergency rule was declared, probably helped push Musharraf into announcing a timetable for elections, along with continued pressure from other Western governments, especially the British, and from some of Musharraf’s own supporters, who are worried about the political fallout of the last few days’ events.

“Once President Bush spoke to him straight and told him, ‘Look, this is not acceptable,’ I think that this must have had a strong impact. The United States has a lot of influence on Musharraf,” said Shafqat Mehmood, a former senator.

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“Also, there has been universal condemnation throughout the world. That must also have weighed heavily on him, and he thinks he can relieve some of that pressure by making this announcement.”

Musharraf may also feel able to budge slightly now that a looming threat to his rule has been neutralized. Although he cited the need to curb Islamic extremism as the primary reason for the state of emergency, virtually all observers agree that his real target was Pakistan’s judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court, which was close to ruling on whether his reelection as president last month was legal.

Since Saturday, Musharraf has purged independent-minded judges and stacked the benches with loyalists. A newly reconstituted high court is expected to declare his reelection valid as early as next week, and Musharraf said Thursday that he would give up his army uniform upon his swearing-in, without setting a date.

“He’s got what he’s wanted,” Mehmood said. “He’s gotten rid of the judges that were a problem for him, all the judges in the superior courts, and he’s made sure that all the objections to his candidature are no longer there. Nobody’s going to rule against him. He’s got his future somewhat under control.”

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Musharraf’s interference in the judicial system has sparked a rebellion by lawyers, who have spearheaded anti-government protests. Some scattered demonstrations were reported Thursday; they mostly ended without the brutal police response of baton charges and tear gas seen on previous days.

In Islamabad, a couple of hundred lawyers gathered and shouted anti-Musharraf slogans outside a courthouse.

Here in Lahore, the country’s traditional political and cultural hub, dozens of students rallied on the campus of the prestigious University of the Punjab. But police -- deployed in force at the nearby Lahore high court, a focal point for demonstrations -- did not step in.

For now, Pakistanis are hesitating to take to the streets. Many have become alienated from politics after witnessing years of corruption and misrule under both military and civilian leaders, including Bhutto, or have been scared off by the images of police swinging their clubs and dragging off bloodied protesters.

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As Musharraf’s already-low popularity ratings sink even further, Bush administration officials acknowledge that they have reached out to Pakistani army officers as well as heads of political parties and other leaders.

“Certainly, we are in contact with a spectrum of leaders, responsible leaders throughout Pakistan,” said Sean McCormack, the chief U.S. State Department spokesman.

But U.S. officials say they are not “coordinating” any political activities in the country.

There was no sign that Musharraf’s pledge to hold parliamentary elections would trigger any relief from or quick end to emergency rule.

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In the southern port city of Karachi, Pakistan’s financial center, three politicians and a labor activist were arrested and charged with treason for making anti-Musharraf speeches, the Associated Press reported. Police were also trying to arrest eight lawyers on similar charges for handing out anti-Musharraf leaflets.

Treason is punishable by death under the state of emergency.

Allies of Musharraf have variously said that emergency rule could be lifted after one month or possibly longer, mirroring the conflicting statements the president’s advisors also issued regarding when elections would take place. Until Musharraf’s announcement Thursday, officials had declared both that the polls could take place by the original mid-January deadline or be delayed by as long as a year.

If emergency rule persists, the credibility of those elections will increasingly be thrown in doubt.

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“What does it mean he will hold elections if people can’t campaign, if they can’t rally, if they can’t mobilize? The election is only likely to be a Kafkaesque exercise,” said Hasan of Human Rights Watch. “No transition is taking place. A uniformed president is holding an election after creating fear and terror in the society?”

In a slight easing of a blackout of independent broadcast news outlets, foreign channels such as CNN and the BBC were restored to cable television service Thursday about the time of Musharraf’s announcement.

But popular private Pakistani channels such as Geo and Aaj TV remained cut off, until and unless they signed a new “code of conduct” regulating what goes out on the air. Under emergency rule, content deemed in “ridicule” of the government or the military is banned.

Many newspaper journalists fear that they are next in line to be targeted by security forces.

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Bhutto’s party planned today’s demonstration at a spot that was heavy with significance to Pakistanis. Rawalpindi is home to army headquarters, and Liaquat Park, where demonstrators were to gather, is named for Pakistan’s first prime minister, who was assassinated there in 1951.

Some onlookers said they did not support the official ban on the rally but that any big gathering these days was too dangerous to risk attendance. Three weeks ago, Bhutto’s triumphant homecoming procession in Karachi, after her eight years in self-imposed exile, was hit by a suicide bombing that killed more than 140 people.

“I might go otherwise, but I am afraid of something like what happened in Karachi,” said Rawalpindi shopkeeper Irfan Nawaz.

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henry.chu@latimes.com

Times staff writers Laura King in Rawalpindi and Paul Richter in Washington and special correspondent Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad contributed to this report.


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