( AFP ) - The number two US diplomat on Sunday urged embattled President Pervez Musharraf to end the state of emergency in Pakistan before upcoming elections and restart talks with the opposition.
John Negroponte said Pakistan's people deserved better than emergency rule which was "not compatible" with holding free and fair polls.
The US deputy secretary of state flew to Islamabad amid growing US concern at the situation in Pakistan, a crucial US ally in the "war on terror" whose political crisis has rattled nerves in Washington.
He met Musharraf and other key officials and also spoke by telephone with opposition leader and former premier Benazir Bhutto.
Speaking to reporters before leaving, Negroponte said it was too early to talk of success or failure of his diplomacy, acknowledging the situation had "polarised somewhat" with Bhutto put under house arrest twice in 10 days.
He urged Musharraf to backtrack on the emergency he imposed two weeks ago, release thousands of political detainees and lift stringent media curbs that have seen private television news channels shut down.
"We do not think that these kind of emergency measures are compatible with the kind of environment that is needed to conduct free and fair elections," he said.
Negroponte said Musharraf repeated his vow to resign as army chief before taking office for a second time as president.
But there was no indication of a date for ending emergency rule, which the military ruler has indicated should remain in place for general elections by January 9.
"The people of Pakistan deserve an opportunity to choose their leaders free from the restrictions that exist under a state of emergency," the US official said.
Negroponte urged Musharraf and Bhutto to restart power-sharing talks they had been holding before the emergency, which Washington had eyed as a moderate bulwark against extremism.
Bhutto appeared to scrap hope of an agreement last week, ruling out further talks and vowing never to serve with Musharraf in government.
Negroponte appealed for compromise. "If steps were taken by both sides to move back towards the kind of reconciliation discussions they had been having previously, we think that could be very positive," he said.
Such talks would "improve the political environment and pull the political actors back from the atmosphere of brinksmanship and confrontation."
Diplomats say Negroponte warned Musharraf that Washington would review its military aid unless the emergency was ended, but he gave no details.
In a related development The New York Times reported on its website Saturday citing unnamed current and former senior government officials, that the administration of President George W. Bush has spent almost 100 million dollars over the past six years on a top secret program to help Pakistan guard its nuclear weapons.
It was unclear, however, if the review cited by Negroponte would include the nuclear protection program which according to the Times report includes delivery of helicopters, night-vision goggles and nuclear detection equipment as well as training of Pakistani personnel in the United States.
A senior presidential aide told AFP that Musharraf made it clear emergency rule would only end "once the situation regarding law and order improves."
The Pakistani leader, who seized power in a coup in 1999, insists that he was right to impose the measures because of Islamic militancy and a meddling judiciary.
Bhutto, for her part, is pondering her next move in her stronghold in the southern city of Karachi. She is talking with other opposition leaders to try to build a united front that may involve boycotting the polls.
Negroponte also voiced concern at a raging Islamic militancy in northwest Pakistan's scenic Swat valley, where pro-Taliban militants loyal to a radical cleric have made sweeping gains this year.
"The situation in Swat is a reminder of the fact that there are issues to deal with regarding violent extremists in this country," he said.
"The government of Pakistan is undertaking major efforts at the moment to deal with the situation in Swat and I suspect it will be doing so for a while to come."
Pakistani army chiefs Saturday vowed a major operation "any time from now" to clear militants from the valley.
The Supreme Court meanwhile will Monday resume hearing challenges against the legality of Musharraf's re-election as president last month.
He has said he will hang up his uniform if it rules in his favour.