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Police, Anti-Musharraf Protesters Scuffle in Pakistan

Supporters of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto rallying near parliament Wednesday were met by police wielding batons and tear gas.

Protesting the imposition of martial law, the crowd from Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party shoved metal barricades into riot police who blocked its path. Police beat several activists and dragged at least three away from the scene, according to journalists covering the protests.

The demonstrators pulled back after several rounds of tear gas were fired toward them.

Opposition Members Jailed

Bhutto had called on supporters to defy a ban on protesting the imposition of emergency rule. She also said more than 400 members of her party have been arrested.

Writing in an op-ed piece that appeared in Wednesday's New York Times, Bhutto also called on the U.S. to get tough on Musharraf.

"It is dangerous to stand up to a military dictatorship, but more dangerous not to," she wrote.

She urged Western nations to show "in their actions, and not just in their rhetoric" which side they are on.

Musharraf declared emergency rule on Saturday, suspending the constitution. That has allowed for the detention of thousands of opposition activists, lawyers and human rights workers and put a stranglehold on the media. Officials say about 2,500 people have been detained since the decree, though opposition parties put the figure at 3,500.

Musharraf has also suggested that elections — which were scheduled for January — could be delayed by up to a year.

Musharraf justified emergency rule because he said the courts were hampering Pakistan's effort to fight extremism, for instance by ordering the release of suspects held without charge.

But opponents accuse him of a mounting a last-ditch maneuver to stay in power.

In the Times editorial, Bhutto claimed that Musharraf's government had already decided to delay elections by up to two years. A Pakistani Cabinet minister, however, said the government has made no decision on a date, but has discussed delaying elections by no more than three months.

In the garrison city of Rawalpindi, where the Bhutto's PPP said it would march, the mayor said police would be out in force to prevent anyone from reaching the park where the former prime minister hoped to address supporters on Friday.

"We will ensure that they don't violate the ban on rallies, and if they do it, the government will take action according to the law," Mayor Javed Akhlas told The Associated Press.

Suicide Attacks Possible

Akhlas said there was a "strong threat" of another suicide attack against Bhutto, who escaped an Oct. 18 blast in Karachi during a procession welcoming her home from exile. More than 140 people were killed in the attack.

A suicide bomber blew himself up a few hundred yards from President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's office in Rawalpindi on Oct. 30, killing seven people.

With the encouragement of the United States, Musharraf had been holding talks with Bhutto that were widely expected to lead to a power-sharing arrangement after January's parliamentary elections.

The United States and other foreign donors to Pakistan are pressing for the elections to be held on time. They are also urging Musharraf to keep a promise to quit his post as army chief — the real source of his power.

"For elections to be credible, opposition political party leaders and their party workers must be released from jail or house arrest. The media must be free to report on events and share their opinions with the public," U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson said after meeting the head of the election commission on Tuesday.

Musharraf took power in a 1999 coup.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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