Musharraf decides against emergency

( AP ) - President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on Thursday decided against declaring a state of emergency in Pakistan and will press ahead with plans to hold free and fair elections, a government minister said.

Pakistani media have been reporting that the military leader would impose a state of emergency to deal with rising violence and political instability - a move that a senior government official confirmed was under consideration. The

He met with legal experts, security officials and officials from the ruling party, a presidential aide said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

After speaking to Musharraf by phone, apparently following those meetings, Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani said the president was committed to holding free and fair elections.

"There were suggestions from the ruling coalition and also from certain other political entities that there is a requirement of emergency in the country. But these suggestions were obviously discussed and ultimately it was decided that it this is not the time," Durrani told The Associated Press.

Musharraf, a key ally in Washington's fight against terrorism, has seen dwindling popular support amid a failed bid to oust the country's chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry - an independent-minded judge likely to rule on expected legal challenges to Musharraf's bid for re-election to another five-year term. Musharraf also has been beset by rising violence in the country, particularly following an army raid to end the takeover of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, an operation that left more than 100 people dead.

Tariq Azim, the deputy information minister, had said earlier in the day that a state of emergency could not be ruled out because of "external and internal threats" and deteriorating security in Pakistan's volatile northwest near the Afghan border.

Azim also said talk from the United States about the possibility of U.S. military action against al-Qaida in Pakistan "has started alarm bells ringing and has upset the Pakistani public." He cited recent remarks by Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., a presidential candidate, saying they were one reason the government was debating a state of emergency.

More than 360 people have died in a wave of suicide attacks and clashes between militants and security forces that began with a bloody army assault on a pro-Taliban mosque in Islamabad in early July.

The government's acknowledgment that the possibility was under discussion appeared to deepen the sense of crisis surrounding the military ruler, who took power in a 1999 coup.

Political analyst Talat Masood said that if Musharraf had imposed a state of emergency, it would be an act of desperation that would doubtless be challenged in the courts, and could trigger a public backlash.

"This is his weapon of last resort," Masood said. "But it would be a weapon of mass destruction, of mass political destruction."

A state of emergency would give Musharraf sweeping powers, including the ability to restrict people's freedom to move, rally, engage in political activities and assert their fundamental rights through the courts.

Yet the Supreme Court - which has emerged as the most potent check on the military leader's dominance of Pakistani politics - could still challenge the legality of such a declaration.

Last week, a bench of the court freed a political opponent of Musharraf, and on Thursday heard a freedom of movement case lodged by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is seeking to return from exile to run in parliamentary elections. Sharif went into exile after Musharraf ousted him in a 1999 coup.

Speculation that an emergency could be imminent grew after Musharraf on Wednesday abruptly pulled out of the meeting in Kabul with more than 600 Pakistani and Afghan tribal leaders, phoning Afghan President Hamid Karzai to say he couldn't attend because of "engagements" in Islamabad. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz went instead.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke with Musharraf by phone for more than 15 minutes early Thursday, said an official in Washington on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation. The official refused to discuss what was said.

Musharraf is under growing U.S. pressure to crack down on militants at the Afghan border because of fears that al-Qaida is regrouping there.

The Bush administration has also not ruled out unilateral military action inside Pakistan, but has stressed the need to work with Musharraf.

Another exiled former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who was widely reported to have met with Musharraf recently in the United Arab Emirates to discuss a power-sharing deal, told Geo TV a declaration of emergency would be "a negative step for the restoration of democracy."

Under Pakistan's Constitution, the president may declare a state of emergency if it is deemed the country's security is "threatened by war or external aggression, or by internal disturbance beyond" the authority of provincial government's authority to control.

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