Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said on Thursday he would end a state of emergency next month, bowing to domestic and international pressure to restore normal government ahead of general elections in January.
I'm fully determined that the emergency will be lifted on December 16, Musharraf said in an address to the nation on the day of his inauguration as a civilian president, for a second five-year term, a day after he stepped down as army chief.
God willing, the election should be held under the constitution in a free and transparent manner, he said, referring to the January 8 general election.
Thousands of opposition politicians and lawyers were detained under emergency laws, independent media were shut and sporadic anti-Musharraf protests were curbed by baton-wielding police.
The United States, Pakistan's biggest ally in the West, has publicly called for an end to emergency rule, fearful that instability will undermine the fight against al Qaeda and the struggle against the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.
We saw the report and of course our embassy officials have been in touch with the Musharraf government. We welcome this step, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said of Thursday's news.
Asked whether the date to lift emergency rule was announced due to U.S. pressure, she said: I think you have to give President Musharraf some credit here ... Certainly, we had been in communication with him, but I think that he made this decision on his own.
Ending emergency rule will not necessarily make life easier for Musharraf. He faces widespread resentment at home and the January vote will likely install a legislature hostile enough to contemplate impeachment.
Washington will keep up the pressure on him to tackle Islamist militancy. By quitting as chief of the army, which brought him to power in a military coup in 1999, he has cut himself off from his main power base.
Musharraf earlier proffered an olive branch to old political rivals outraged by his declaration of emergency rule on November 3, welcoming their return from exile as good for political reconciliation.
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif returned on Sunday and another old rival, Benazir Bhutto, came back last month. Musharraf deposed Sharif in 1999 in a bloodless military coup and forced the two-time premier abroad a year later.
Musharraf said Bhutto and Sharif had now been given a level playing field and urged them and other politicians not to boycott the election.
Sharif and Bhutto, also a former prime minister, argued the vote could not be free and fair if held under emergency powers.
Sharif said after meeting some of his opposition colleagues they had decided in principle to boycott the vote but they would consult Bhutto and aimed to reach a final decision at an all-party conference.
Most analysts expect them to take part. Sharif is waiting to see if he will be barred from running in the election by criminal convictions he says were politically motivated. The election commission has asked him to appear on Friday to respond to a complaint over his candidacy.
Musharraf governed as military ruler from 1999 until June 2001 when he eased out the then president, a Sharif nominee, and had himself sworn in. Parliament later endorsed him as president.
He won re-election in a vote by legislators on October 6. He suspended the constitution, declared emergency rule and purged the Supreme Court to block opposition legal challenges to him winning the presidency again while still a serving officer.
The 64-year-old leader said the country would be stronger with him as a civilian leader and his hand-picked successor, General Ashfaq Kayani, in charge of the military.
This is a milestone in the transition of Pakistan to a complete essence of democracy, he said.
Sharif said Musharraf's presidency was illegitimate and the Supreme Court judges he banished to ensure his re-election should be restored and allowed to rule on his position.
Under the circumstances, we do not accept him as a legitimate president, said Sharif.
Musharraf, who cited rising militancy when he imposed the emergency, said the military had broken the back of the spread of terrorism from remote tribal lands on the Afghan border towards urban population centers.
We have to defeat terrorism, there is no choice, he said, hours after a bomb killed five soldiers near the Afghan border.
Many ordinary Pakistanis say it is time he left politics.
I don't consider him to be the president. After taking oath as president eight years ago, what has he done? Nothing, said Ali Imran, a 30-year-old government servant in Lahore.