Freed Bhutto vows to defy protests ban
AN EMBATTLED Pakistan yesterday allowed opposition leader Benazir Bhutto to leave her villa after a day of house arrest and announced plans to lift its state of emergency within a month.
But President General Pervez Musharraf risked further condemnation by ordering three British journalists to leave the country for critical editorial comments.
With Musharraf under increasing international pressure to fully restore democracy, Bhutto appeared unbowed by her brief detention. She announced plans to defy a ban on public gatherings and lead a 185-mile march this week.
"I request all segments of the population to join us in the struggle for democracy. When the masses combine, the sound of their steps will suppress the sound of military boots," Bhutto told around 100 journalists protesting at the media clampdown that has accompanied the emergency.
Musharraf insists he called the week-old state of emergency to help fight Islamic extremists who control swathes of territory near the Afghan border. But
thousands of people have been arrested, TV news stations taken off air and judges removed.
Yesterday, three British reporters were ordered to leave Pakistan over an editorial in the Daily Telegraph against the country's leadership.
Isambard Wilkinson, Colin Freeman and Damien McElroy - who work for the Telegraph Group - were given 72 hours to depart amid complaints that coverage had been "derogatory" towards Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf.
The Foreign Office warned that it "actively supported" the freedom of the press and was "seeking clarification" on the situation from the authorities.
Meanwhile, protests were staged outside Downing Street yesterday, urging a return to democracy and for Gordon Brown to intervene. Led by Jemima Khan, the ex-wife of Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, the demonstrators chanted slogans and waved banners, calling Musharraf a "butcher" and a "terrorist".
Musharraf last week said that parliamentary elections initially due in January would be held no more than a month later, dispelling speculation that the vote could be delayed by as long as year.
Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum said yesterday that the state of emergency would "end within one month".
And authorities appeared to be momentarily easing off the clampdown on Bhutto, a former prime minister, and her supporters, thousands of whom were rounded up ahead of a major rally she had planned to hold on Friday.
A heavy security cordon placed around Bhutto's Islamabad villa to keep her from going to the rally was lifted yesterday morning and she was allowed to leave, meeting first party colleagues and then addressing the small journalists' protest. But dozens of helmeted police blocked her white, bulletproof Land Cruiser when she tried to visit Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the independent-minded chief justice, who was removed from his post following Musharraf's state of emergency.
Speaking through a loudspeaker, Bhutto said Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked militants were gaining ground in the country's turbulent north-west. She also said Musharraf's military-led government would crumble. "This government is standing on its last foot. This government is going to go."
Bhutto said earlier in the day that she would lead a march on Tuesday from Lahore, in eastern Pakistan, to Islamabad.
Her jubilant homecoming procession last month in the southern city of Karachi after eight years of exile was marred by twin suicide bombings. She escaped unharmed, but more than 145 people died.
Some US officials have expressed concern that Pakistan's political crisis would actually distract its efforts to quash a growing militant threat.
President George Bush yesterday said that Musharraf knows that the United States wants him to end emergency rule and hold elections, but also that the United States needs Pakistan's cooperation in fighting al-Qaeda. "He knows my position," Bush said, adding that he and Pakistan's government "share a common goal" in combating al-Qaeda.
Just a few weeks ago, Bhutto and Musharraf were discussing the possibility of forming a pro-West alliance against militants, and her return last month came after he agreed to drop corruption charges against her.
Bhutto has left open the possibility of re-entering talks, including her wish to serve a third term as prime minister, but such prospects have been dimmed by her recent restrictions and tough talk.
Bhutto's aides said she would meet foreign diplomats to discuss the political crisis.
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 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.
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