Pakistan Frees Bhutto, Installs Caretaker Premier

Pakistan's president swore in a caretaker administration and ended the house arrest of opposition leader of Benazir Bhutto on Friday ahead of the visit of a senior U.S. envoy.

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has come under increasing pressure in recent days to signal an end to military rule, release Bhutto and announce a schedule for general elections. The caretaker government is meant to ensure the parliamentary poll, set for Jan. 9, is free and fair.

Musharraf, apparently hoping to spare his government the embarrassment of having the high-profile Bhutto in detention during U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte's visit to Islamabad, rescinded her detention order on Friday.

"She's free to move and anyone will be able to go to the house," Zahid Abbas, a senior police official, told The Associated Press near the barricaded house where Bhutto has been confined for three days. He said security would remain for Bhutto's protection.

Bhutto, a two-time former prime minister who returned from exile last month to launch a political comeback, was detained Tuesday to prevent her from leading a protest against Musharraf's Nov. 3 declaration of a state of emergency.

Musharraf Loyalists Head New Government

Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, insists he is still moving toward a restoration of democracy and civilian rule that Western governments believe could help stabilize the nuclear-armed country as it battles rising Islamic extremism.

At a ceremony in the capital, Islamabad, a somber-faced Musharraf said the outgoing Cabinet should be proud of having helped turn around the economy and move Pakistan back toward democracy.

"I take pride in the fact that, being a man in uniform, I have actually introduced the essence of democracy in Pakistan, whether anyone believes it or not," the general said after installing the caretaker ministers at the presidential palace.

The interim government, headed by Musharraf loyalist and former Senate chairman Mohammedmian Soomro, is charged with guiding Pakistan through the parliamentary elections.

Musharraf insists he declared the emergency to prevent judicial interference and the rising threat from militants linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida from derailing the vote.

Preparing for Negroponte's Visit

But Musharraf's emergency faces stiff criticism from countries including the United States, his key international backer, that the ballot cannot be fair unless restrictions on the opposition and the media are lifted.

Negroponte was expected to arrive in Pakistan later Friday for talks on the deepening political crisis. It was unclear whether he would meet with Bhutto.

The State Department said Negroponte expected to meet "with whomever he wants to see," including Musharraf and opposition politicians.

President Bush "wants the state of emergency to be lifted. And it is up to President Musharraf. He has the responsibility to help restore democracy to the country," White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said.

Bhutto called Thursday on opposition parties, who deride Musharraf as a dictator trying to shore up his own fading power, to form a national unity government to replace him and organize the elections.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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