( AFP ) - Pakistani authorities freed former premier Benazir Bhutto and a leading human rights activist from house arrest Friday as a senior US official headed to Islamabad to urge an end to emergency rule.
The orders ending their detention came just hours before President Pervez Musharraf was to swear in a caretaker government to steer this nuclear-armed nation to elections.
He named senate chairman and close ally Mohammedmian Soomro, a 57-year-old former banker, as interim prime minister.
Soomro and the rest of his cabinet were to take their oath of office at a presidential palace ceremony later in the morning, after parliament dissolved at midnight.
Military ruler Musharraf hailed the handover as evidence of "a new culture of smooth transition, which is as it should be in civilised societies."
He has promised general elections by January 9, but opposition leaders are considering a boycott and there is growing international anger at his refusal to end the state of emergency he imposed on November 3.
Authorities overnight withdrew a seven-day detention order on Bhutto, a top provincial government official told AFP earlier.
She had been detained behind barbed wire and wooden barricades at the home of a close aide in the eastern city of Lahore. Three people died Thursday in protests in Karachi against her detention.
"The detention order has been withdrawn but normal police security will stay with her," said Khusro Pervaiz, home secretary of Punjab province.
"The order was placed to stop Bhutto from leading a public rally in the wake of a very credible suicide attack threat."
State media said Asma Jahangir, chairwoman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and a special UN rights rapporteur, had also been freed from house arrest in Lahore.
The United States has led international calls for Musharraf to restore the constitution, step down as head of the powerful army, free thousands of people detained under emergency laws and ensure free and fair elections.
John Negroponte, number two to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was due to arrive Friday in Islamabad to press US concerns.
Washington has been signalling its growing impatience with Musharraf over emergency rule, which he said was necessary to tackle Islamic militancy and a meddling judiciary.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates even questioned Musharraf's future effectiveness as a US ally in the fight against Al-Qaeda and Taliban extremism.
Musharraf's "ability to continue to be a partner in the war on terror very much depends on how events unfold over the next few weeks in Pakistan," Gates told a Pentagon news conference.
Senior US government officials quoted by The New York Times said they fear Musharraf may eventually fall from power and that Washington should consider back-up plans with Pakistan's military elite.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Musharraf needed to put Pakistan back on the path to democratic rule, which would benefit all "those who have an interest in fighting violent extremists around the world."
Bhutto has also been ratcheting up the pressure, telephoning key political figures here in a bid to form a united opposition front.
She spent two hours in talks Thursday with US consul general Bryan Hunt.
The United States had quietly backed Bhutto's return to the country last month and talks for a possible power-sharing deal with Musharraf, seeing the moderate pair as ideal partners against Islamic militancy.
However, Bhutto says the negotiations are over and vowed this week that she would never serve in a government with Musharraf.
"Too much water has gone under the bridge," she said.