( AFP ) - Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf is set to quit as army chief and become a civilian president at the weekend, a top government official said Wednesday, as the military ruler won fresh US backing.
Attorney general Malik Mohammad Qayyum told AFP that if the Supreme Court throws out a final challenge Thursday to Musharraf's re-election as expected, he would hang up his uniform within days.
"If the Supreme Court lifts the stay order against his re-election, then President Musharraf is likely to take the oath as a civilian president by Saturday or Sunday," Qayyum said.
"Once the court decides, the notification (of his victory) can be issued in a day or two and then he should take the oath this weekend."
The Pakistani leader has been under intense international pressure led by the United States to end the state of emergency he imposed on November 3, quit as chief of army staff, hold fair elections and free political prisoners.
Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, has promised to quit his army post as soon as the court dismisses all the challenges so his victory can be officially validated.
Qayyum earlier told AFP that lifting emergency rule was linked to security concerns, especially in the northwest where pro-Taliban militants are fighting government forces, and not to when Musharraf would take the oath.
The top court on Monday dismissed the main five of six challenges against Musharraf's October 6 victory, leaving just one -- regarded as minor -- to be heard Thursday.
On Tuesday, authorities set general elections for January 8 and announced the release of more than 3,400 prisoners detained under emergency rule, with another 2,000 to be released "soon."
That step was welcomed by US President George W. Bush who said Musharraf -- a key ally in the fight against Islamic extremism -- "hasn't crossed the line" where he would lose Washington's support.
"I don't think that he will cross any lines. I think he truly is somebody who believes in democracy," Bush told ABC television in an interview.
"Today, I thought was a pretty good signal that he released thousands of people from jail," Bush added.
"Are we happy with the emergency rule? No, we're not. Do we, do I understand how important he is in fighting extremists and radicals? I do.
"And do I believe that he's going to end up getting Pakistan back on the road to democracy? I certainly hope so," the US president said, adding he had found Musharraf to be "a man of his word."
Musharraf returned Wednesday from oil powerhouse Saudi Arabia where he held talks with King Abdullah which included the crisis in Pakistan, the official Saudi SPA news agency reported.
A Pakistani diplomatic source told AFP that Musharraf wants the Saudis to rein in former premier Nawaz Sharif, who has been in exile there since he was toppled by his arch enemy in a 1999 coup.
In Islamabad, the Supreme Court -- purged of judges who refused to swear a new oath -- was expected to dismiss legal challenges to the decision to impose emergency rule.
Pakistan's main opposition leaders meanwhile were still deciding whether to boycott the January 8 vote.
Sharif has said it was "not possible" to take part if the election was held under emergency rule, while Benazir Bhutto, who heads the largest opposition group, said she would make her decision by Thursday.
In a further sign that the crackdown was not over yet, police baton-charged journalists protesting in the southern city of Karachi against the media curbs imposed under emergency rule.
Around 140 journalists were arrested, but later released.
Further pressure was being exerted on Musharraf by the Commonwealth, whose foreign ministers, meeting in Uganda, were expected to decide by late Thursday whether to suspend Pakistan from the 53-nation club.