Bhutto urges all Pakistanis to join Musharraf protest

on November 12 2007 10:37 AM

Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on Monday urged Pakistanis of all shades to join a motorcade protest against President Pervez Musharraf's emergency rule and vowed it would go ahead even if police try to block her.

Musharraf set off a storm of criticism when he imposed emergency rule on November 3 and has come under pressure from Western allies and rivals to set the nuclear-armed country back on the path to democracy.

He is likely to face more such calls when the 53-nation Commonwealth meets in London on Monday to discuss Pakistan.

Two-time prime minister Bhutto plans to lead a 3-4 day, 270 km (170 miles) procession from Lahore to Islamabad on Tuesday to demand General Musharraf quit as army chief, end emergency rule, reinstate the constitution and free thousands of detained lawyers and opponents -- including many from her party.

Police have said Bhutto could be the target of a suicide assassination bid, like the one that killed 139 people at a rally last month welcoming her back from eight years in self-exile.

I know it is dangerous, Bhutto said during a visit to the tomb of renowned 19th century poet Mohammad Iqbal during an impromptu foray into Lahore in her bullet-proof Landcruiser.

But I ask myself, what is the alternative and how can we save our country? ... We appeal to all people, including from other parties and minorities, women and children, to take part in this long march, she said of the motorcade.

Bhutto, who had for months been in power-sharing talks with Musharraf, reiterated there would be no negotiations with an emergency in place and the constitution suspended.

Police initially said they would block the long march convoy, just as they stifled a rally in Rawalpindi on Friday when Bhutto was held under house arrest for most of the day.

A senior police official said early on Monday he had no orders to stop Tuesday's convoy but another said there was a strong possibility the procession would not be allowed.

Rallies have been banned under the emergency.

Security was tight at the home of a party official where Bhutto was staying with about 200 police manning barricades across streets. But Bhutto and party officials were not stopped from coming and going. As darkness fell, police moved in more barricades which they said were for her security.

NO TALKS

Musharraf justified the emergency by saying the judiciary was hampering the battle against militants and interfering with governance. However, diplomats say his main objective was to stop the Supreme Court from ruling invalid his October 6 re-election by legislative assemblies dominated by his supporters.

Musharraf said on Sunday a general election would be held by January 9 but declined to say when the emergency would be lifted and the constitution restored.

He also said he would step down as army chief and be sworn in as a civilian president as soon as the Supreme Court, where new judges seen as friendly to the government have been appointed, ruled on challenges to his election. The attorney general said the court was expected to resume hearing the case next week.

Bhutto, who was dogged by accusations of corruption when prime minister, welcomed Musharraf's announcement on the polls but said he had not gone far enough in meeting her demands.

She said on Sunday she had not closed the door to negotiations with Musharraf but on Monday ruled out talks. The United States hopes the pair -- who both stress fighting militancy -- might share power after elections.

If there's an emergency, if the constitution is not restored, there cannot be talks, she said. We are saying 'no' to any more talks. Asked if that meant no more talks ever, a party official said there would be none for the moment.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed Musharraf's announcement on polls but called for an end to emergency rule.

The United States is worried the turmoil will distract its ally's attention from efforts against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Pakistani forces are battling an Islamist insurgency spreading from the Afghan border, where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding, into so-called settled areas.

Pakistani stocks, hurt by the emergency, ended nearly 2 percent higher on the election announcement, dealers said.

Musharraf has seen his popularity slide since he tried to sack the top judge in March but retains crucial military support, analysts say.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

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