Musharraf warned: hold elections and quit as army chief

(Guardian) - The US and Britain are today expected to demand that Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, honour pledges to hold elections in the next two months and step down as the army chief, or face a cut in western support.

The diplomatic showdown will come in the form of a meeting in Islamabad between the Pakistani leader and a group of ambassadors, two days after he declared emergency rule - and three days after giving assurances to the prime minister, Gordon Brown, and the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, that he would stick to an election deadline in mid-January, and step down as head of the country's army.

Last night Pakistan's prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, called those promises into question when he said the government had not decided when to hold the elections and warned they could be delayed by up to a year. Wielding his new powers with an iron fist yesterday, Gen Musharraf rounded up hundreds of opposition and human rights activists and introduced tight media regulations. Mr Aziz's statement directly contradicted personal assurances Gen Musharraf apparently gave to Mr Brown and Ms Rice on the eve of the emergency declaration.

The pledge to the prime minister was made on Friday, when Mr Brown telephoned Mr Musharraf and expressed concern over reports that an emergency decree was being planned.

"He [Mr Brown] said we had heard he was considering this and we thought it was a bad idea," a British official said.

Downing Street and the Foreign Office denied claims from Islamabad yesterday that Britain had, in fact, sanctioned Gen Musharraf's declaration.

A Musharraf aide told the Guardian that the Pakistani president had "satisfied" objections raised by Mr Brown during the conversation. "There was pressure from the US and Britain in the beginning. But later on, when the government gave them the detail that elections will be held on time, and the president will take off his uniform, they did not have any objections," the official said, on condition of anonymity. A Foreign Office official insisted "no consent was implied or given".

In his address to the nation on Saturday night Gen Musharraf said the step was necessary to combat growing Islamist extremism that has seen a succession of suicide bombings and a battle in the previously peaceful northern area of Swat.

But yesterday his police turned their batons on political opponents and human rights critics from a wide spectrum of society - although notably not from Benazir Bhutto's People's party. Ms Bhutto, who has been edging towards a power-sharing deal with Gen Musharraf for months, condemned emergency rule but did not call her supporters on to the streets.

In Lahore police armed with assault rifles raided the offices of the national human rights commission.

Police seized camera equipment belonging to journalists. The ousted chief justice, Muhammad Iftikhar Chaudhry, was trapped behind a cordon of police at his Islamabad house.

The leader of the lawyer's movement, Aitzaz Ahsan, was held incommunicado at Adiala Jail near Rawalpindi. Tammy Haq, a colleague who attempted to visit him, said she feared he was being tortured. "I've seen martial law before, my brother was in jail, and this is exactly the same," she said.

Mr Aziz said the former cricketer Imran Khan and retired intelligence chief Hamid Gul were among 500 people being held in preventative detention. Private TV channels remained off air and senior journalists said they feared arrest. The only news coverage came through the state TV channel, which broadcast a report into the lack of press freedom in India.

The British and US reaction has so far been cautious. It has fallen short of condemnation. More severe measures, as well as a reassessment of western aid to the Musharraf government will hinge on today's critical meeting.

"What we will make very clear is that the government must keep to the commitment to hold elections on time, the commitment to take off the uniform, the commitment to a free press, the commitment to reach out other parties, and the commitment to release political prisoners," a senior British official said. "How they respond to that will determine how our reaction thereafter."

Ms Rice, speaking to journalists in Jerusalem, said yesterday the US would "review" aid to Pakistan, which has totalled $11bn (?5.5bn) since 2001.

British officials said they would reassess aid in coordination with the US.

In Lahore a human rights campaigner, Asma Jahangir, sent an email from home where she has been placed under detention for 90 days. "Those he has arrested are progressive, secular minded people while the terrorists are offered negotiations and ceasefires," she wrote.

Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, president of the ruling PML-Q party, said the decision to impose emergency rule was triggered by fears that the supreme court would rule against Gen Musharraf's recent re-election in a legal appeal. A friendly judge passed the information to the government last Wednesday. "He said the verdict may be unanimous. So we had no choice," he told the Guardian. "The debate was whether to impose emergency before or after [the court ruling]."

Asked how long the emergency measures would be in place Mr Aziz said: "As long as it is necessary."

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