ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Supporters of Benazir Bhutto clashed with police in front of parliament Wednesday after she urged party activists into the streets to protest emergency rule, deepening the uncertainty engulfing a Pakistan already shaken by rising Islamic militancy.
Seeking to position herself as the only leader able to unite the country to confront Islamic extremism, the former prime minister toughened her rhetoric against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, but she left open the possibility of resuming talks if he ends the crackdown.
Thousands of Pakistanis have been jailed or put under house arrest since Musharraf assumed emergency powers Saturday, and Bhutto called on her followers to show their defiance of the clampdown on civil liberties.
In an opening skirmish, some 400 loyalists of her Pakistan People’s Party, the country’s largest, marched up to riot police blocking their way to the parliament building, where lawmakers minutes earlier had rubber-stamped the emergency declaration.
Police fired tear gas over their heads and beat and arrested a few who broke through barricades topped with barbed-wire, including several women.
Naheed Khan, a close aide to Bhutto, waded into the brief melee. She whacked a policeman on the shoulder and screamed: “Who are you? How dare you take action against women?”
The demonstrators pulled back through the choking gas, chanting “Benazir! Benazir!” and “Down with the emergency!”
Musharraf, who has been promising to restore democracy since seizing power in a 1999 coup, has ousted independent-minded judges, put a stranglehold on the media and granted sweeping powers to authorities to crush dissent since declaring emergency rule.
The general says he suspended the constitution because the courts were hampering his efforts against extremist groups, such as by ordering the release of suspects held without charge. Political opponents, however, contend the crackdown is really meant to protect Musharraf’s hold on power.
Bhutto’s decision to join in protests added a new dimension to worsening political instability.
With the encouragement of the United States, Musharraf had been negotiating with Bhutto on forming an anti-militant political alliance and sharing power after parliamentary elections.
But with the elections on hold, Bhutto has pulled back from negotiations, and she urged her supporters to defy Musharraf’s ban on demonstrations by marching on parliament and attending a mass rally called for the nearby city of Rawalpindi on Friday.