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Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency today. He also suspended the country's constitution and replaced the nation's Supreme Court chief justice. Musharraf's actions followed months of conflicts with the Supreme Court, which was due to issue a ruling soon that could have threatened his hold on power.
NPR's South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves has this report.
President PERVEZ MUSHARRAF (Pakistan): I would like to take this opportunity to speak to the world in general, but particularly to our friends in the West.
PHILIP REEVES: With those words, delivered in a late-night television broadcast to his nation, General Pervez Musharraf began to explain to a worried world why, once again, he today seized absolute power in Pakistan.
Pres. MUSHARRAF: Pakistan is on the verge of destabilization, if not arrested in time, now without losing any further time or delaying the issue.
REEVES: General Musharraf knew as he spoke the international community was broadly against him. The U.S. successfully stopped him declaring a state of emergency earlier this year. But this time, it failed to restrain its ally, a chief recipient of American aid.
The U.S. State Department was left to fume publicly, declaring that it was, in its words, deeply disturbed by Musharraf's move. Musharraf presented his move as a matter of life and death.
Pres. MUSHARRAF: I personally, with all my conviction and with all the facts available to me, consider that inaction at this moment is suicide for Pakistan. And I cannot allow this country to commit suicide.
REEVES: The general has long argued that, thanks to him, Pakistan is in the third stage of a transition from military rule to democracy, though his many critics dispute this. He said today's decision was to protect that process.
Pres. MUSHARRAF: And it is this third stage which I want to complete with all my conviction. And if we don't take action, I don't think we are going into this third stage. I don't know what chaos and confusion may follow.
REEVES: But there's already plenty of chaos and confusion. In the last few weeks, Pakistan has been hit with one suicide bombing after another, many of them successfully targeting the security forces.
There's a new insurgency led by a cleric demanding Sharia law in the Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan, once a tourist haven. The army seems to be making little impact. In the tribal bout, several hundred Pakistani soldiers have been held hostage for weeks after surrendering to pro-Taliban militants, evidence of a general collapse in morale.
However, today's decision probably has more to do with Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. The current political crisis in Pakistan began in March when Musharraf tried to sack him. Chaudhry refused to work and began to tour the country in a convoy, sometimes attracting huge crowds.
Pakistan's legal community led the way.
(Soundbite of protesters)
REEVES: In July, Chaudhry was reinstated by Pakistan's Supreme Court. He returned to the bench to lead a court that was, to the delight of many Pakistanis, willing to confront the military government. The court decided to allow the recent presidential elections to proceed before it could decide whether it was actually legal for Musharraf to stand again.
Musharraf easily won that election, but the court wouldn't allow the result to be confirmed until it had made its mind up. Its decision was expected soon. Musharraf and his aides were worried the verdict would go against him. And that, many believed, is the reason Musharraf declared emergency rule today and sacked the chief justice. It's a move that could well mobilize the judge and his supporters again.
Philip Reeves, NPR News. New Delhi.
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