House Arrest Lifted for Pakistan's Bhutto

Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto has been freed from house arrest a day after her residence was cordoned off by police to forestall a major anti-government rally planned by her supporters.

The former prime minister was being allowed to move freely, according to Aamir Ali Ahmed, acting deputy commissioner for Islamabad. Witnesses said barriers and police remained outside her home.

Earlier, the U.S. called for the restrictions to be lifted. Members of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party said she would try to leave Saturday morning.

Police Bar Bhutto from Attending Rally

After a brief scuffle with Bhutto's supporters, police strung lengths of razor wire around her Islamabad home on Friday, preventing her leaving in a car to attend the rally in neighboring Rawalpindi to protest Musharraf's imposition of emergency rule.

Dozens of police, some in riot gear, were deployed at Bhutto's residence along with steel and concrete barriers. Other security personnel patrolled on motorcycles, horseback and in armored vehicles. At least 12 Bhutto supporters were arrested, including a woman who showed up with flowers.

Kamal Shah, a top Interior Ministry official, said a district magistrate had served a "detention order" on Bhutto so she could not leave her home. However, speaking to journalists by phone from the scene, Bhutto said that no arrest papers had been served on her.

"If I'm arrested, the People's Party of Pakistan workers will continue to fight for democracy and the rule of law," Bhutto told reporters who heard the call via speakerphone. She said that 5,000 members of her party had already been detained.

In Rawalpindi, where the rally was to have taken place, about 200 Bhutto supporters were dispersed by police using tear gas and batons. Dozens were arrested, according to journalists and witnesses. The planned rally did not take place.

Afzal Khan, an Islamabad police official, said that officers blocking Bhutto's way were following a government order prohibiting the former prime minister from holding the rally. The Rawalpindi mayor said there was a "credible report" that six or seven suicide bombers were preparing to attack it.

"The government says that some suicide bombers have entered Islamabad. If they have any such information, then why can't they arrest them?" Bhutto told reporters.

Bhutto also demanded that Musharraf step down as army chief by next week when his presidential term expires.

"He should be retired as the chief of army staff by Nov. 15," she said.

National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe, who was accompanying President Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch said the U.S. remains "concerned about the continued state of emergency and curtailment of basic freedoms." He said Bhutto and other political opponents should be "permitted freedom of movement."

"We urge Pakistani authorities to quickly return to constitutional order and democratic norms," he said.

Musharraf's Emergency Rule Continues

The crackdown showed that a week after suspending the constitution and assuming emergency powers, Musharraf was not letting up on his political rivals despite promising parliamentary elections would go ahead by mid-February, just a month later than originally planned.

In the northwestern city of Peshawar, police used force to disperse about 300 Bhutto trying to reach Rawalpindi. About 25 were arrested.

Critics say that Musharraf — who seized power in a 1999 coup — declared the emergency and ousted independent-minded judges to maintain his own grip on power. The moves came days before the Supreme Court was expected to rule on whether his recent re-election as president was legal.

Musharraf said the declaration of emergency last Saturday was needed to put an end to political instability and to fight Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants.

But most of the thousands of people rounded up countrywide have been moderates — lawyers and activists from secular opposition parties. Police have squashed attempts by the lawyers to protest.

Hundreds of students have also staged demonstrations on university campuses.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.