PAKISTAN will not declare a state of emergency, the president, Pervez Musharraf, said yesterday, despite the disintegrating security situation in the world's second most populous Muslim country.
Mr Musharraf, a former general who came to power in a military coup in 1999, is widely regarded in the West as its most important ally in the war on terrorism, but he faces growing radicalisation at home. Islamic fundamentalists are challenging his rule, as al-Qaeda and the Taleban see the country as ripe for revolution.
"We are in direct confrontation with the extremist forces - moderates versus extremists," Mr Musharraf said yesterday, after ruling out taking up emergency powers. Elections due by the end of this year are regarded as crucial to Pakistan's future, and Mr Musharraf assured the country's newspaper editors: "The solution lies in the democratic process."
Violence in the country has spiralled since government forces stormed Islamabad's Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, compound last week, ending a week-long siege. The government said 102 people were killed during the entire operation to crush a militant movement led by rebel clerics.
Adding to the tension, a suicide bomber on Tuesday killed 17 people at a rally for Pakistan's suspended chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, whose legal battle with Mr Musharraf has galvanised opposition to military rule.
Aside from the 17 killed, more than 60 people were injured.
Many victims belonged to former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party.
Speaking afterwards from self-imposed exile in London, Ms Bhutto voiced fears that "hidden hands" were trying to create a pretext for Mr Musharraf to impose an emergency.
In keeping with the assumption of conspiracy that dogs the country's politics, Munir Malik, one of Mr Chaudhry's lawyers, accused Pakistan's intelligence agencies of the attack. "This was an attack on the chief justice," he said.
Some analysts and diplomats expect Ms Bhutto to join a power-sharing government with Mr Musharraf after the elections. She is the only opposition leader to voice strong support for the bloody government crackdown on the radical Red Mosque.
At the same time, pro-Taleban fighters have abandoned a ten-month-old peace pact in North Waziristan, a tribal region regarded as a safe haven for al- Qaeda.
An unclassified National Intelligence Estimate by the 16-agency intelligence community of the United States yesterday said Osama bin Laden's militant network had gained strength and become entrenched in remote north-western Pakistan, which includes Waziristan.
Militants bombed and strafed an army convoy with gunfire in the region yesterday, killing 17. The bloodshed has clouded government efforts to resurrect a peace pact that militants disavowed over the weekend.
Mr Musharraf insists that the accord offers the best long-term hope of pacifying the region.
Troops pulled back to barracks or to posts on the border in return for pledges from tribal leaders to expel foreign fighters and halt militant attacks in Pakistan and in Afghanistan.
The deal was supposed to open the way for an extensive development programme for which the US pledged $750 million (375 million) over the next five years and which Mr Musharraf said would ultimately dry up support for militancy.
A government-backed mediator who met with tribal elders said this week he was hopeful that the pact could still be salvaged by the government and a tribal jirga, or council. "We want the jirga to mediate and it should see from which sides mistakes have been made," Maulana Nek Zaman, a cleric, said.
Pakistan's foreign ministry rejected the US assessment of al-Qaeda activity as unsubstantiated. "We would firmly act to eliminate any al-Qaeda hideout on the basis of specific intelligence or information," the ministry said."It does not help simply to make assertions about the presence or regeneration of al-Qaeda in bordering areas of Pakistan. What is needed is concrete and actionable information and intelligence sharing."