LAHORE, Pakistan – Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto demanded the resignation of U.S.-backed President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on Tuesday, dashing Western hopes that the two moderate leaders would form an alliance to confront strengthening Islamic extremists.
“I could not serve as prime minister with Gen. Musharraf as president. I wish I could,” she said.
Bhutto, just placed under house arrest for the second time since her return from exile, said she was working to forge a partnership with Nawaz Sharif, the man overthrown as prime minister in a 1999 coup by Musharraf.
Her call raised a new threat for Musharraf, a key U.S. ally who faces growing pressure at home and abroad to end emergency rule and restore democracy.
It further complicated matters for Washington, which has criticized Musharraf’s recent crackdown on dissent but sees him as a dependable partner in the fight against al-Qaida.
The White House said it still hoped Pakistan’s “moderate elements” could unite, but Bhutto said she would no longer try to work with Musharraf.
“The international community needs to decide whether it will go with one man or the people of Pakistan,” Bhutto said by telephone from the house where she is being held in the city of Lahore.
Musharraf has defended emergency rule as needed to curb political unrest that he says is hampering the government’s fight against Taliban- and al-Qaida-linked militants, who have been gaining the upper hand in the country’s northwest along the border with Afghanistan.
Critics contend the Nov. 3 emergency decree was a cover to oust judges who had crimped Musharraf’s powers in this country of 160 million people. They call his move outright martial law since authorities now have unchecked power to detain opponents and military courts can try civilians for treason.
Authorities imposed Bhutto’s detention to block her from staging a protest procession to the capital, Islamabad. The march went ahead but was quickly stopped by police, and security forces also clashed with protesters in other cities.
Tuesday’s events were followed similar events Friday, when police sealed Bhutto inside her Islamabad villa and rounded up hundreds, possibly thousands, of her supporters to stop a mass rally she had called.
Bhutto said thousands of her supporters were again rounded up Tuesday, although officials denied detentions on such a large scale. This time, Bhutto’s reaction was much sharper.
“I’m calling for Gen. Musharraf to step down, to quit, to leave, to end martial law,” she said in a phone call with a group of journalists. “Pakistan is a nuclear-armed country. We cannot afford this kind of chaos and instability,” Bhutto said.
Musharraf countered that Bhutto “has no right” to ask him to resign.