LAHORE, Pakistan – Police said they lifted the house arrest of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto today, hours before the arrival of a senior U.S. 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 Gen. Pervez Musharraf has given no sign he will hand over power. He has named his own interim prime minister and was expected to announce today a caretaker Cabinet to oversee parliamentary elections promised by Jan. 9.
“The government has withdrawn the detention order,” Zahid Abbas, a senior police official, told a reporter near the barricaded house where Bhutto has been confined for three days.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 deepened Thursday 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 U.S. to the recent protests by lawyers, students and secular parties against military rule.
Also Thursday, 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.
Bhutto outlined her plan for opposition factions to form a national unity interim government that could supplant Musharraf’s administration during a telephone interview with the Associated Press, 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 Musharraf feared the court would overturn his re-election 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-Qaida-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 U.S. 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,” Negroponte said.