(Reuters) - Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule last night, plunging the nuclear power into crisis and triggering condemnation from leaders around the world.
The action to reassert his flagging authority was, he said, a response to Islamic militancy and to the 'paralysis of government by judicial interference'. He said that his country's sovereignty was at stake.
Judges and lawyers were arrested, troops poured on to city streets and television and radio stations were taken off the air. Musharraf also suspended the constitution and fired the chief justice, Muhammad Iftikhar Chaudhry, who spearheaded a powerful mass movement against him earlier this year.
Last night police arrested opposition politicians and senior lawyers including the chief justice's lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan, and Imran Khan. 'Musharraf is acting like a spoiled child, holding the whole country hostage. These are the last days of Pervez Musharraf,' said Ahsan as he was escorted from his home into a police van. Ahsan, who leads the Supreme Court Bar Association, said that lawyers would launch a series of nationwide protests tomorrow.
Soldiers entered the Supreme Court in the late afternoon where Chaudhry and six other judges said Musharraf's declaration that he would rule under a provisional constitutional order was illegal. Chaudhry was reportedly under house arrest last night.
Police sealed off the main street in central Islamabad and soldiers entered the state television and radio buildings. Private news networks went off the air and mobile phone coverage was intermittent. Shots were heard in several neighbourhoods of Karachi, where there is strong support for former Prime Minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, who had gone to Dubai on Thursday on a personal visit. She arrived back in Pakistan to a rapturous welcome last night and immediately decried Musharraf's move as tantamount to dictatorship.
'Unless General Musharraf reverses the course, it will be very difficult to have fair elections,' she said.
The United States, which sees Musharraf as a crucial ally against al-Qaeda, had urged him to avoid taking authoritarian measures and called the move 'very disappointing'.
Late last night Musharraf addressed the nation on state television. He said he decided to impose a state of emergency in response to a rise in extremism and to interference from the courts and judges in the business of government. Pakistan's internal security has deteriorated in recent months with a wave of suicide attacks by al-Qaeda-inspired militants, including one that killed 139 people.