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Pakistan's Bhutto Wants Interim Unity Government

Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, who remained under house arrest Thursday, said she is working to form an interim national unity government that would replace President Gen. Pervez Musharraf ahead of elections.

"I am talking to the other opposition parties to find out whether they are in a position to come together," she said from the home in Lahore, Pakistan, where she has been detained since Tuesday. "We need to see whether we can come up with an interim government of national consensus to whom power can be handed."

She made the comments shortly after a visit from Bryan Hunt, the U.S. consul general in the eastern Pakistani city.

The former prime minister left open the question of whether she, or someone else, would lead such a government, saying it was a subject that would have to be worked out in negotiations.

Musharraf refuses to step down as the head of the country. But he did say Wednesday that he plans to surrender his position as army chief by the end of November.

He has rejected pressure to end the state of emergency he instituted last weekend that resulted in suspending the nation's constitution, shutting down media, placing Bhutto under house arrest, and staving off other opposition groups.

Hunt said he had told Bhutto of Washington's wish for Musharraf to lift the state of emergency, quit as army chief and free opposition politicians and the media.

"We need to move as rapidly as possible to have free and fair elections held on time," Hunt said.

Bhutto said Washington is concerned about a power vacuum in Pakistan and wanted to know whether she would still consider working with Musharraf.

"I told him that it was very difficult to work with someone who instead of taking us toward democracy took us back toward military dictatorship," she said.

Bhutto said she tried to allay Washington's concern about what would happen to this nuclear-armed nation if Musharraf were forced out, saying she shared the Americans' misgivings and that a strategy for an orderly transition was a must.

"That is a valid concern," she said. "In fact, once Gen. Musharraf agrees to go, we need to have an exit strategy."

Bhutto confirmed she had been in contact by phone with exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but had not addressed her ideas for a unity government. She was due to speak with him later Thursday.

Bhutto returned from eight years of self-imposed exile last month to campaign for a third term as prime minister. She was greeted by a massive suicide bombing that killed 145 people following her welcome procession through the streets of the southern city of Karachi. She has since been detained twice by Musharraf while planning further rallies.

From NPR and The Associated Press