Bhutto threatens mass protest as police baton-charge supporters

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The Independent Online

The former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto has issued her most defiant statement yet since the imposition of emergency rule, as her supporters were attacked by riot police firing tear gas in the heart of the capital yesterday.

"We can't work for dictatorship. We can work for democracy," she told reporters at her Islamabad headquarters. "General Musharraf can open the door for negotiations only if he revives the constitution, retires as chief of army staff and sticks to the schedule of holding elections."

Since he declared the emergency on Saturday, the opposition and Pakistan's Western allies have stepped up their demands for General Musharraf to back down. Ms Bhutto, who leads the country's only truly national party and is capable of mobilising the largest protest, threatened to press on with a rally in Rawalpindi tomorrow which has been banned under the emergency laws, and to lead her supporters from Lahore to Islamabad on a "long march" on 13 November if their demands are not met.

Leaders of other parties, citing the relatively low number of arrests of her party members, have accused her of equivocating over emergency rule and being silent on the removal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and several other Supreme Court judges.

Sheikh Rashid, the railways minister, said: "I don't think the emergency will prolong long. It will take five to six days to decide when it will be ended." He said he thought there would be elections in early February.

However, the international community is pressing for a swifter change of heart by General Musharraf. The secretary-general of the Commonwealth, Don McKinnon, informed the Pakistan Foreign Minister, Khurshid Kasuri, in a telephone call from London yesterday, that nine Commonwealth foreign ministers would discuss Pakistan's case in an emergency meeting next Monday, and warned that the prospect of the country being suspended "cannot be ignored".

Mr McKinnon said the state of emergency was "like a kick of sand in the face" to the Commonwealth, which had agreed to restore the country's membership in 2004 on condition that General Musharraf removed his military uniform.

The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, also invoked the possibility of Pakistan being suspended again unless "free and fair" elections were held in January as scheduled.

Shortly after Ms Bhutto's press conference, hundreds of her supporters were involved in clashes with riot police near parliament. Sherry Rehman, an MP, said police baton-charged and threw tear gas at protesters as they staged a peaceful march.

More than 200 supporters of Ms Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party had approached police barricades, trying to move them. They were met by a phalanx of close to 800 police clasping batons and large shields. "They were beating us with great force," said Arshad Baghi, a member of the PPP's youth wing in Rawalpindi.

Elsewhere in Islamabad, 500 lawyers and students gathered peacefully outside the district courts. And in Lahore, some 200 students held another protest at the elite Lahore University of Management Sciences.