( Reuters ) - Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto's party said on Thursday that police arrested thousands of its activists overnight, hours after U.S. President George W. Bush urged President Pervez Musharraf to hold elections and quit as army chief.
Police, who have already detained hundreds of lawyers and other opposition figures and supporters since General Musharraf imposed emergency rule and suspended the constitution on Saturday, denied arresting Bhutto supporters.
"They have raided homes of our activists across Punjab throughout the night. The number of people arrested is now in the thousands," said Farzana Raja, a party spokeswoman in the central Punjab province.
Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party plans to hold a public meeting in Rawalpindi, adjoining the capital Islamabad, on Friday to protest emergency rule and Bhutto has threatened a mass march on Nov. 13 unless Musharraf backs down.
Police have warned the party rallies are banned.
"All kind of rallies have been banned because we have reports from intelligence agencies that 7 to 8 suicide bombers have sneaked into Punjab," Saud Aziz, police chief of Rawalpindi, told Reuters.
"We don't want a repeat of (the) Karachi incident," he said, referring to a suicide attack last month in the southern financial capital during a rally to mark Bhutto's return from eight years of self-imposed exile. At least 139 people were killed.
The Karachi stock market, which fell 4.6 percent on Monday following emergency rule, fell 1.2 percent early on Thursday as Bhutto's protest threat stoked political uncertainty. The market has come off by around 10 percent since life highs on Oct. 22.
Bush spoke directly with Musharraf overnight for the first time since the military ruler of nuclear-armed Pakistan declared a state of emergency on Saturday citing a hostile judiciary and rising militancy.
The United States had hoped Bhutto would share power with Musharraf after elections due in January, but Musharraf's calling of the emergency brought disarray to U.S. policy.
"My message was that we believe strongly in elections and that you ought to have elections soon and you need to take off your uniform. You can't be the president and the head of the military at the same time," Bush told a news conference.
"I had a very frank discussion with him," Bush said of Musharraf, whom he has touted as a close ally in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Pakistan government officials have said January elections will be held on time. A member of Musharraf's inner circle said emergency rule was likely to be lifted within 2 or 3 weeks. But Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, has not yet personally confirmed this.
Washington has said it will review aid to Pakistan, which has totalled nearly $10 billion since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
A senior Pentagon general said the U.S. military was worried about the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons after the imposition of emergency rule.
"Any time there is a nation that has nuclear weapons that has experienced a situation such as Pakistan is at present, that is a primary concern," Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, director of operations for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters.
Bhutto made her political demands clear at an Islamabad news conference on Wednesday after meeting members of her PPP and smaller opposition parties.
"We can't work for dictatorship. We can work for democracy," she said. "General Musharraf can open the door for negotiations only if he revives the constitution, retires as chief of army staff and sticks to the schedule of holding elections."
She said her supporters would begin their protest on Nov. 13 from the eastern city of Lahore, the nation's political nerve-centre, and travel to Islamabad to stage a sit-in.
Musharraf's main reason for imposing emergency rule and suspending the constitution appears to have been the removal of judges viewed as hostile to the government, analysts say. Ousted chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry is being held incommunicado at his residence in Islamabad.
The Supreme Court had been hearing challenges to the legality of Musharraf's Oct. 6 re-election by parliament while still army chief. Fears the decision could have gone against the general were believed to have been the main motive for his move.
The United States and Britain were joined by the 27-nation European Union in urging Musharraf to release all political detainees, including members of the judiciary, relax media curbs, and seek reconciliation with political opponents.
Britain has warned Pakistan could face suspension from the Commonwealth unless Musharraf ends emergency rule and holds free and fair elections.