Bhutto freed from house arrest
Released prior to the arrival of US envoy
LAHORE, Pakistan - Police said they lifted the house arrest of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto today, hours before the arrival of a senior US envoy who was expected to urge the country's military leader to end emergency rule.
The move came after Bhutto - while still confined to a house in Lahore - urged fellow opposition leaders to join her in an alliance that could govern until elections.
Despite Bhutto's call, President Pervez Musharraf has given no sign that he will hand over power. He has named his own interim prime minister and was expected to announce a caretaker Cabinet today to oversee parliamentary elections promised by Jan. 9.
"The government has withdrawn the detention order," Zahid Abbas, a senior police official, said near the barricaded house where Bhutto was confined for three days.
"The house is no longer a sub-jail but security will remain for her own protection. She's free to move, and anyone will be able to go to the house," Abbas said.
Political unrest intensified yesterday as one of the country's main Islamist parties called its first protests for today against the state of emergency, adding the voice of factions opposed to Musharraf's alliance with the United States to the recent protests by lawyers, students, and secular parties against military rule.
Also yesterday, two children and an adult were killed during a gunbattle between police and protesters in the southern city of Karachi, the first deaths during demonstrations since Musharraf suspended the constitution Nov. 3. Protests were reported in other cities and more party activists were arrested.
During a telephone interview, Bhutto outlined her plan for opposition factions to form a national unity interim government that could supplant Musharraf's administration during a telephone interview, and the idea was quickly supported by her longtime political rival, Nawaz Sharif.
But Sharif said they weren't in a position to form an acting government unless Musharraf was removed from office. Bhutto indicated a need for a voluntary transfer of power, saying she shared Washington's concern about a power vacuum should the general be ousted.
Sharif, who like Bhutto is a former prime minister, said the opposition's priority should be reinstatement of Supreme Court judges removed by Musharraf. Independent-minded judges blocked some of his moves this year and many people suspect that Musharraf feared the court would overturn his reelection as president last month by legislators.
The deteriorating situation greatly worries the Bush administration, which has seen Musharraf as a key ally in the fight against Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked extremists who have been gaining strength along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.
President Bush "wants the state of emergency to be lifted," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "And it is up to President Musharraf. He has the responsibility to help restore democracy."
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, on his way to Pakistan to underline the US demands, said during a stop in Africa that the democratic process here has been "derailed."
"Our message is that we want to work with the government and people of Pakistan and the political actors in Pakistan to put the political process back on track as soon as possible," he said.
Reflecting a view in Washington that Musharraf may not be able to hold on to power, US officials have been referring broadly to "the Pakistani leadership" and contacting other senior military leaders. The back-channel contacts include some who may have pull with Musharraf or even pose an alternative to his rule.
Bhutto said she was contacting political leaders about her proposal for an alliance that could step in and govern until a new parliament is elected.
"I am talking to the other opposition parties to find out whether they are in a position to come together," she said. "We need to see whether we can come up with an interim government of national consensus to whom power can be handed."
Bhutto sidestepped the question of whether she or someone else would lead such a unity government, saying that was a subject for negotiation. But she said a consensus on leadership was necessary to ensure an orderly transition, should Musharraf agree to step down.