Pakistan quickly ended house arrest for opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on Friday as President Gen. Pervez Musharraf came under new U.S. pressure to end a crackdown that Washington fears is hurting the fight against Islamic extremism.
Earlier in the day, police threw up barbed wire around Bhutto's house to keep her from speaking at a rally to protest Musharraf's imposition of emergency rule, and security forces rounded up thousands of her supporters to block any mass demonstrations.
The action was a new blow to hopes the two U.S.-friendly leaders could form an alliance against militants - a rising threat underlined by a suicide bombing in northwest Pakistan that targeted the home of a Cabinet minister, who escaped without injury.
Bhutto twice tried to evade authorities in her car, telling police who surrounded her villa: "Do not raise hands on women. You are Muslims. This is un-Islamic." Officers blocked the former prime minister's way with an armored vehicle.
In Rawalpindi, the nearby garrison town where she had hoped to stage the rally, police fired tear gas at hundreds of Bhutto loyalists who staged wildcat protests and hurled stones. More than 100 were arrested.
The Bush administration called for the restrictions on Bhutto to be lifted, and Pakistan's government said late Friday that she was again free to move about, although police barriers remained outside her house. Her supporters said she would try to leave Saturday morning.
In Washington, where some lawmakers are calling for aid to Pakistan to be curtailed, U.S. officials again criticized Musharraf's crackdown.
"We remain concerned about the continued state of emergency and curtailment of basic freedoms, and urge Pakistani authorities to quickly return to constitutional order and democratic norms," Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said in a statement.
As Musharraf's chief international backer, the Bush administration is deeply concerned about the deteriorating situation in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 160 million people that is on the front lines of the U.S.-led campaign against terrorist groups.
The suspension of the constitution last weekend has intensified the anger of moderate and secular Pakistanis who have become increasingly frustrated with military rule. At the same time, Islamic militants with ties to the Taliban and al-Qaida are stepping up violence, including suicide bombings and fighting in the northwest along the border with Afghanistan.
Musharraf cited the gains by extremists in the frontier region as one of the main reasons for his emergency decree, saying political unrest was undermining the fight against militants.
On Friday, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the home of Minister for Political Affairs Amir Muqam in the northwestern city of Peshawar. Muqam was unhurt but four people died.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the turmoil could undermine the battle against Pakistani insurgents.
"The concern I have is that the longer the internal problems continue, the more distracted the Pakistani army and security services will be in terms of the internal situation rather than focusing on the terrorist threat in the frontier area," Gates told reporters while flying home from a weeklong visit to Asia.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon again expressed concern over Musharraf's emergency rule and urged the immediate release of all those detained, the lifting of restrictions on the media and a return to democratic rule, U.N. associate spokesman Farhan Haq said.
Most of the thousands of people rounded up this week have been moderates - lawyers and activists from secular opposition parties, such as Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party. The detentions have fueled popular suspicions the embattled Musharraf declared the emergency to maintain his grip on power, which he has held since leading a coup in 1999.
The discontent could leave Islamic militants even stronger, analysts said.
"What is the alternative to the Islamic forces? Democracy," said Ayaz Amir, a former lawmaker who is a columnist for the respected newspaper Dawn.
Bhutto's detention, if only for a day, showed Musharraf has no intention of easing the crackdown despite saying Thursday that parliamentary elections would be held by mid-February, just a month later than originally planned. The announcement came after intense pressure from the U.S.
The move against Bhutto further harmed prospects for a Bhutto-Musharraf alliance that Washington has been pushing for.
"I worked out a road map with Gen. Musharraf for a peaceful transition to democracy and I'm very disappointed that though there is a peaceful way, he chose the nonpolitical path," Bhutto told a few dozen supporters after her second foiled attempt to get out of her villa.
Dozens of police, some in riot gear, kept a wary eye on her supporters, who repeatedly tried to remove the barbed wire and steel and concrete barriers ringing Bhutto's house. At least 30 of her loyalists were arrested, including a woman carrying flowers. Dressed in a blue tunic and her trademark white head scarf, Bhutto twice tried to leave for Rawalpindi inside a white Landcruiser with tinted windows, surrounded by about 50 supporters, including several lawmakers.
After being turned back the second time, her way blocked by an armored vehicle, she got out of the car and joined her supporters, who chanted "Go, Musharraf, go!"
"I want to tell you to have courage because this battle is against dictatorship and it will be won by the people," Bhutto said as police stood guard nearby.
Her supporters said they would only be further emboldened by Friday's clampdown.
"We will not go away. Our party activists have been mobilized to move out and take to the streets," said Abida Hussain, a former ambassador to the United States.
Authorities appeared determined to stop them. Bhutto's party claimed Friday that 5,000 of its supporters had been arrested over the preceding three days across the eastern province of Punjab. Security officials said 1,100 had been detained.
In Rawalpindi, the normally bustling city near Islamabad where Bhutto had planned to hold her rally Friday, hundreds of police kept a tight grip on the largely empty streets and moved quickly against any hint of protest.
Small bands of protesters threw stones and set piles of garbage and tires on fire, while police fired tear gas shells from an armored personnel carrier.
There were also scattered protests in Peshawar and Karachi, where opposition supporters blocked some roads with burning tires. ( AP )