( AFP ) - Pakistan said Tuesday it had released more than 3,000 prisoners jailed under President Pervez Musharraf's emergency rule, as US pressure to ease curbs on the opposition finally started to bite.
In a further move aimed at ending weeks of political turmoil and worldwide anger, Pakistan's election commission announced the nuclear-armed nation would hold a general election on January 8.
Musharraf -- who earlier flew to Saudi Arabia where his arch-enemy Nawaz Sharif lives in exile -- faces global calls to scrap the state of emergency, free detainees, lift curbs on the media and ensure a fair vote.
Meanwhile, Commonwealth foreign ministers gather Wednesday in Kampala for a two-day meeting expected to decide whether or not Pakistan should be excluded from the organisation of former British colonies.
A decision is expected late Thursday, before the biennial heads of government summit is officially opened by Queen Elizabeth the next day.
Interior ministry spokesman Javed Cheema told AFP that 3,416 lawyers and political activists arrested since the emergency was imposed on November 3 had already been released, while the remaining 2,000 would be freed "soon".
"While peaceful protests are a part of the democratic process, the federal and provincial governments shall not brook any attempt to create disturbances in the run-up to the elections," Cheema said.
Others facing criminal charges -- including hunger-striking cricket legend Imran Khan -- must apply for bail in the courts to be released, he said.
The White House gave a cautious welcome to the release, saying it would be "a positive development" if confirmed.
"As the situation evolves we are getting closer, hopefully, to when the emergency order will be lifted, the elections will be held, and that President Musharraf will take off the uniform and be a civilian president rather than trying to be both," spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters.
US President George W. Bush expressed confidence Tuesday that Musharraf would heed pressure to end emergency rule and voiced optimism that Islamabad's nuclear arsenal was safe.
"Today, I thought was a pretty good signal that he released thousands of people from jail," Bush told ABC television in an interview from the Camp David presidential retreat not far from Washington.
In a sign the crackdown is not over, police arrested 140 journalists during a protest in Karachi against the shutting of two leading TV channels.
US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte demanded during weekend talks with Musharraf that the military ruler roll back his emergency measures, saying the current crisis was not compatible with free elections.
Musharraf, a bulwark in Washington's "war on terror," reached out Tuesday to another of his closest allies when he travelled to oil powerhouse Saudi Arabia for talks with King Abdullah.
Musharraf and King Abdullah discussed "the current situation in Pakistan," ways of boosting cooperation between their two countries, and events on the regional and world scenes, the official SPA news agency reported.
A Pakistani diplomatic source told AFP that Musharraf wants Saudi Arabia to put pressure on former premier Sharif to "refrain from carrying out any political activities and talking to the press about the situation in Pakistan, as he has been doing lately."
Officials said he had no plans to meet with Sharif, who has lived in exile in Jeddah since soon after Musharraf toppled him in 1999.
Sharif told AFP he had refused to meet Musharraf despite several requests.
Earlier, the head of the Pakistani elections commission pledged to try to ensure free and fair polls on January 8 although the opposition has threatened to boycott the vote.
"The attention of the entire world is focused on our elections," chief election commissioner Qazi Muhammad Farooq said on state television.
That announcement, which kick-starts campaigning in a process designed to return the country to democratic rule, came a day after the Supreme Court had rejected the biggest legal challenges to Musharraf's own re-election.
Musharraf declared the emergency citing a meddlesome judiciary as well as Islamic militancy, amid worries that the old Supreme Court was about to rule against him.
On Monday, the reconstituted court -- purged of judges who refused to swear a new oath under emergency rule -- swiftly dismissed five of six challenges to his October 6 re-election.
The final challenge will be considered Thursday but is unlikely to stop the election commission endorsing his fresh five-year term.
Musharraf has vowed to quit as head of the army, another key demand of the international community, once the decision goes in his favour.
Pakistan's opposition parties are meanwhile in talks with each other about whether to boycott the general election.
Sharif told AFP it was "not possible" to take part if the vote is held under emergency rule.
But former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, whose party is the biggest opposition group in the country, was meeting key party aides on Tuesday to decide on a boycott.