Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf said on Sunday a general election would be held by Jan. 9 but under a state of emergency he imposed eight days ago.
Musharraf, under pressure from rivals and Western allies to put nuclear-armed Pakistan back on a path to democracy, said the National Assembly and provincial assemblies would be dissolved in coming days, upon completion of their terms.
The army chief also told a news conference he would quit the military and be sworn in as a civilian president as soon as the Supreme Court struck down challenges to his Oct. 6 re-election. He said he hoped that would happen as soon as possible.
Fresh violence erupted between police and supporters of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto with four people hurt when police fired to break up protests in Bhutto's home province of Sindh, and many people detained, a party official said.
Bhutto, who has been demanding an end to emergency rule and a speedy poll, said the announcement on the vote was positive.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also welcomed the announcement but called for an end to emergency rule.
The United States is worried the turmoil will hamper its ally's efforts against terrorism. Pakistani forces are battling a growing Islamist insurgency along the Afghan border -- where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding.
Musharraf, who said last week the election would be held by mid-February, said it was up to the Election Commission to decide on the date of the vote but added it had to be within 60 days of the dissolution of the assemblies.
He said the elections should be held before Jan. 9, ahead of the start of an annual Shi'ite Muslim period of mourning when sectarian violence often rises in Pakistan.
Before Musharraf declared emergency rule on Nov. 3, sparking a storm of criticism, polls had been expected by mid-January.
Since suspending the constitution, Musharraf has sacked most judges, locked up lawyers, rounded up most of the political opposition and rights activists, justifying his steps by saying the judiciary was hampering the battle against militants and interfering with governance.
Diplomats say Musharraf's main objective was to stop the Supreme Court ruling his re-election invalid, upholding rivals' protests that he was ineligible to run while army chief.
EMERGENCY IS REQUIRED
Musharraf declined to say when the constitution would be restored or emergency lifted. He said the decision to impose the emergency had been the hardest he had ever taken but said it reinforced the battle against militants and ensured fair polls.
Certainly, the emergency is required to ensure peace in Pakistan, to ensure an environment conducive for elections.
He said he expected politicians detained over the past week to be freed to take part in the elections.
The government says 2,500 people have been detained during the emergency, although Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party says more than 5,000 of its activists have been picked up.
The United States, which values Musharraf as an ally in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban, has said it expects Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless 1999 coup, to quit the army, become a civilian leader and hold elections.
Rice told ABC's This Week programme Musharraf's promised steps were essential to getting Pakistan back on a democratic path but added: We are also encouraging that the state of emergency has got to be lifted and lifted as soon as possible.
Bhutto plans to begin a long march motorcade protest in Lahore on Tuesday unless Musharraf quits the military, rolls back emergency rule and restores the constitution. She has called for the reinstatement of sacked judges but Musharraf ruled that out.
It is a positive step ... but it will not help to resolve all problems, Bhutto, who has been in power-sharing talks with Musharraf, told reporters in Lahore, referring to the vote announcement. The long march will continue.
Bhutto's supporters and other activists have clashed with police in various parts of the country but there has been no major violence.
Musharraf said caretaker governments would be set up when assemblies were dissolved. This is history, ladies and gentlemen, because this is the first time all the assemblies will have completed their terms, he said.
(Additional reporting by Simon Gardner and kamran Haider in Lahore; editing by Sami Aboudi)