Bhutto supporters clash with police as Pakistani political crisis deepens

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan &

Police swung batons and fired tear gas at supporters of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto demonstrating near Pakistan's parliament today, deepening a political crisis triggered by the imposition of military rule.

Associated Press reporters saw hundreds of protesters pushing metal barricades into ranks of riot police blocking their path toward the parliament building, where state television reported that government lawmakers unanimously endorsed President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule.

Police beat several activists, some of them women, who broke through, and dragged at least six people from the scene.

Naheed Khan, a close female aide to Bhutto, stuck a policeman on the shoulder and screamed at him: "Who are you? How dare you take action against women?"

The demonstrators pulled back amid a cloud of tear gas, chanting "Benazir! Benazir!" and "Down with the emergency!"

Thousands of people have been rounded up and put in jail or under house arrest since Musharraf declared a state of emergency Saturday, and three days of protests by lawyers have been quickly put down with force.

Violent clashes with Bhutto's supporters could increase the uncertainty engulfing the country. Bhutto set a collision course with Musharraf today by calling her supporters to defy a ban on rallies by marching on parliament and also attending a mass rally in the nearby city of Rawalpindi on Friday.

"I request my brothers and sisters to reach Rawalpindi at all costs," Bhutto told a news conference.

But the mayor of Rawalpindi, a garrison city just south of Islamabad, said police would prevent anyone reaching the park where Bhutto hoped to address supporters on Friday.

"We will ensure that they don't violate the ban on rallies, and if they do it, the government will take action according to the law," mayor Javed Akhlas told the AP.

Musharraf suspended the constitution after declaring the state of emergency. He has since ousted independent-minded judges, put a stranglehold on the media and granted sweeping powers to authorities to crush dissent.

With the encouragement of the United States, Musharraf had held negotiations with Bhutto widely expected to lead to a power-sharing arrangement after parliamentary elections originally slated for January.

Bhutto said Tuesday that Musharraf's resort to authoritarian measures was a "breach of trust" with her and that the talks were off. However, she also suggested that they could resume if circumstances change.

"I think we should all come down as strongly as we can for the restoration of democracy. And if General Musharraf wants to find a way out, well the ball is in his court," she said.

The United States and other foreign donors to Pakistan are pressing loudly for the elections to be held on time. They are also urging Musharraf to keep a promise to quit his post as army chief &

the real source of his power.

"For elections to be credible, opposition political party leaders and their party workers must be released from jail or house arrest. The media must be free to report on events and share their opinions with the public," U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson said after meeting the head of the election commission on Tuesday.

Musharraf says he suspended the constitution because the courts were hampering Pakistan's effort to fight extremism &

for instance by ordering the release of suspects held without charge. But opponents accuse him of a mounting a last-ditch maneuver to stay in power.

In an op-ed piece published in The New York Times, Bhutto urged the U.S. to tell Musharraf it expects internationally monitored elections to be held within 60 days.

"It is dangerous to stand up to a military dictatorship, but more dangerous not to," Bhutto wrote. "The moment has come for the Western democracies to show us in their actions, and not just in their rhetoric, which side they are on."

Bhutto invited other opposition parties to a meeting in Islamabad on Wednesday to discuss a joint strategy against the emergency. However, the party of Nawaz Sharif, the premier Musharraf deposed in a coup in 1999, snubbed the gathering.

Sharif urged the West to abandon Musharraf but also ruled out teaming up with Benazir Bhutto, another key opposition leader, unless she cut off talks with Musharraf.

Sharif told The Associated Press that Pakistan was heading deeper into chaos and his archenemy had outlived his usefulness in fighting terrorism.

"One man is holding the entire nation hostage for his personal interests," Sharif said.

"The political forces, the lawyers and civil community that believe in moderation and democracy, they are sidelined today. Who is going to get the benefit? It will be the radicals and extremists, they will thrive now," he said in a telephone interview from Saudi Arabia, where he was deported in September after attempting to return to Pakistan. "Mr. Musharraf is a man who has outlived his utility in terms of fighting any battle against terror."

Sharif, whose government was ousted by Musharraf in a 1999 coup and has spent the last seven years in exile, said thousands of his party members had been rounded up in the past four days.

He urged the public to protest against Musharraf, and predicted that unless the state of emergency was reversed and Musharraf ousted, the country could be pitched toward "catastrophe."

"Even the ruling junta today does not know how to go get out of this situation they have got into," he said.

Musharraf purged the Supreme Court just as it was preparing to rule on the legality of his contested re-election as president last month. The court also has pressed for authorities to allow the return of Sharif from exile in Saudi Arabia.

Lawyers particularly are incensed by the ouster of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, an independent-minded judge whom Musharraf had tried unsuccessfully to fire earlier this year.

Chaudhry is under house arrest in Islamabad but managed on Tuesday to use a cell phone to urge lawyers to take to the streets.

"We should act upon this message and it will be decided once and for all if the army or the people will rule Pakistan," Zaman said.

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