Bhutto placed under house arrest as Musharraf flexes muscles

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The Independent Online

President Pervez Musharraf has mounted an overwhelming display of force against the Pakistan opposition leader Benazir Bhutto by subjecting her to what was in effect house arrest in Islamabad to stop her from addressing a protest rally against emergency rule.

Thousands of her opposition party members were arrested and both the neighbouring cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi were sealed by police.

The opposition leader was released yesterday evening after several hours. But earlier in the day, amid dramatic scenes outside her home, Ms Bhutto, who leads Pakistan's largest political party, twice attempted to cross the heavily fortified cordon of barbed wire, barriers and concrete blocks.

"The detention order has been withdrawn," Aamir Ali Ahmed, Islamabad's acting deputy commissioner, said last night.

More than 500 members of the Islamabad and Punjab police had been arrayed at each end of the street since the morning, with many plainclothes officers and members of the anti-terrorist squad later adding to their numbers. An armoured personnel carrier was positioned beyond the cordon, and large police buses circled the streets throughout the day.

At 4pm, when it emerged that the police were not going to let her pass, Ms Bhutto stepped out of her bullet-proof vehicle and addressed the vast crowd of reporters gathered opposite to demand that the President gives up his military position and immediately lift emergency rule, which he declared last weekend.

"We are calling for the revival of our constitution and respect for our judiciary," she said, surrounded by leading members of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP). "We are calling for General Musharraf to keep his commitment and retire as chief of army staff on 15 November." Ms Bhutto railed against "dictatorship" and condemned the arrests of 5,000 supporters in Rawalpindi, where she had intended to address a mass rally. She added that she still intended to lead her supporters on a "long march" from Lahore to Islamabad on 13 November.

Only parliamentarians and senior members of Ms Bhutto's party were allowed through the cordon to see her. Other visitors and PPP members – who would occasionally burst into the area chanting pro-Benazir slogans – were grabbed by police, thrown into the backs of vans, and carted off to a nearby prison. Ms Bhutto's house arrest was lifted last night.

Abdul Qadir Khamosh, the secretary general of the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, was whisked away seconds after telling a television interviewer: "There is no power that can stop the people and their will to bring an end to dictatorship." Neelam Awan, a PPP supporter, was dragged away by female police officers as she screamed " Long live Bhutto!"

In Rawalpindi, the stage for the rally was demolished and thousands of police officers were deployed around the venue. Sporadic clashes broke out between the police and PPP supporters who ran out of the side streets where they had been hiding. The police attacked protesters with baton-charges and fired tear gas. PPP supporters replied by hurling stones and torching rubbish and car tyres.

All roads leading out of Islamabad had been blocked by police vehicles and large containers. The motorway between Lahore and Islamabad had been shut to all private vehicles.

The government had banned the Rawalpindi rally under emergency laws, citing a security threat said to exist in the form of roaming suicide bombers. Ms Bhutto was the target of a suicide bombing attack which killed more than 100 people in Karachi on her return from exile last month. Three people were killed yesterday in the north-western city of Peshawar by a suicide bomber targeting the home of a minister, who escaped unharmed.

It remains to be seen whether yesterday's events will lead to the end of Ms Bhutto's negotiations with General Musharraf, which wiped away her corruption charges and paved the way for her return. Ms Bhutto said that she had not been in contact with the government recently and had instructed her party members not to do so either.

But she seemed open to the possibility of reviving the talks if her demands were met. "If he restores the constitution, takes off his uniform, gives up the office of the chief of army staff and announces an election by 15 January, then it's OK," she said. Ms Bhutto was supported yesterday by the White House, whose spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, said that "free and fair elections require a lifting of the state of emergency".

Some analysts suggested that there was an element of government co-ordinated choreography involved in yesterday's events. Unlike the lawyers and other opposition parties, none of the leaders from Ms Bhutto's party were detained or held under house arrest. A section of her speech was broadcast on the state-owned Pakistan Television.

But the heavy-handed measures are likely to stiffen her supporters' opposition to General Musharraf, many of whom regard prospects for any political reconciliation increasingly remote. "I don't think there's any possibility of a conversation between my party and Pervez Musharraf," said Abida Hussain, Ms Bhutto's former ambassador to the United States. " He is by now a veteran liar because he will not separate himself from what he calls his second skin, his uniform."

Ahsan Iqbal, a spokes-man for the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's opposition PML-N, said that the events in Rawalpindi and Islamabad were a replay of Mr Sharif's abortive attempt to return from exile. Mr Iqbal said: "We hope that the People's Party realises that instead of trying to have an understanding with General Musharraf, they can come to an understanding with other opposition parties."

On other side of the capital, lawyers close to the former chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who has been under house arrest since the emergency declaration, said that there was an attempt to forcibly take him to Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province.