Musharraf promises to lift state of emergency within two weeks

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Pervez Musharraf last night bowed to international demands and domestic pressure when he announced that the state of emergency he imposed earlier this month would be lifted within two weeks.

Just hours after Mr Musharraf was sworn in as the country's civilian President, he appeared on state television to say the emergency would be lifted by 16 December and repeated a promise that parliamentary elections would go ahead under free and fair conditions. He also called on his political opposition to participate now a "level playing field" exists.

Coming just a day after he stood down as head of the country's armed forces, Mr Musharraf's concession may come a little late for some of his opponents. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), said he and other opponents had agreed in principle to boycott the election, thus withholding the legitimacy Mr Musharraf wishes the elections will have.

"I am determined to lift the emergency by 16 December. The elections, God willing, will be held free and transparent under the constitution," said Mr Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999, overthrowing Mr Sharif and forcing him into exile from which he has only just returned.

Quite how the opposition will proceed is unclear. If the party of another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, participates in the elections then it is unlikely that Mr Sharif and others would boycott them, given their own history of animosity. In addition, neither would like to leave Mr Musharraf's ruling party a clear run at seizing a majority.

Mr Musharraf imposed the state of emergency on 3 November when he sacked members of the Supreme Court, which he believed was set to rule that his presidential election victory September was invalid. There was immediately intense pressure from international allies such as the US to lift the emergency. Although Mr Musharraf put a new set of Supreme Court judges in place, and while hundreds of the thousands of people he imprisoned remain behind bars, it is likely the US will support last night's announcement.

With no small irony, the man who swore in Mr Musharraf was the man chosen to be Supreme Court Chief Justice after the President sacked the chief judge, Iftikhar Chaudhry. "Congratulations, Mr President," said Abdul Hameed Dogar.

Mr Musharraf welcomed as "good" for political reconciliation the return from exile of his old foes, Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif. However, no senior opposition leader attended the ceremony.

"This is a milestone in the transition of Pakistan to the complete essence of democracy," Mr Musharraf said in an address to an audience of government officials, foreign diplomats and military generals. "Anyone who is talking of any boycotts should hear this out: come hell or high water, elections will be held on 8 January. Nobody derails it."

In Lahore clashes broke out between police and lawyers protesting against Mr Musharraf's inauguration. Four lawyers and three officers were injured as around 400 demonstrators chanting "Go, Musharraf, go" flung bricks and sticks at policemen who blocked their path as they tried to march from one court complex to another.