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Lahore protest banned, Benazir defiant

Lahore, Nov. 12 (Reuters): Pakistani Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto will not be allowed to hold a motorcade procession planned tomorrow from Lahore to protest against emergency rule, a government official said.

Two-time Prime Minister Bhutto had earlier today urged Pakistanis of all shades to join the motorcade protest against President Pervez Musharraf’s emergency rule and vowed it would go ahead even if police tried to block her.

As darkness fell, hundreds of extra police moved in around the Lahore home of a party official where Bhutto was staying. They set up more barricades across streets, saying it was for her security.

But party officials and guests were not stopped from coming and going into the house.

Musharraf set off a storm of criticism when he imposed emergency rule on November 3. He suspended the constitution, sacked most judges, locked up lawyers, rounded up thousands of Opposition and rights activists and curbed the media.

The crisis in the nuclear-armed country has raised fears about its stability and Musharraf has come under pressure from western allies and political rivals to set Pakistan back on the path to democracy.

Bhutto plans to lead a 3-4 day, 270 km “long march” from Lahore to Islamabad to demand that Musharraf quit as army chief, end emergency rule, reinstate the Constitution and free thousands of detained lawyers and opponents — including many from her party.

But a government official said it would not be allowed, setting the scene for confrontation tomorrow when thousands of supporters are expected to converge on the neighbourhood to begin the procession.

“Rallies and protests are banned, they are not allowed,” deputy information minister Tariq Azim Khan said when asked about the planned protest. “Whoever breaks the law will be taken to task,” he said.

Police have said Bhutto could be the target of a suicide assassination bid, like the one that killed 139 people at a rally last month welcoming her back from eight years in self-exile.

Earlier, Bhutto said she was aware of the danger but had no choice. “How can we save our country'” she said during a visit to the tomb of renowned 19th century poet Mohammad Iqbal during an impromptu foray into Lahore in her bullet-proof Land Cruiser.

“But I ask myself, what is the alternative and how can we save our country' .... We appeal to all people, including from other parties and minorities, women and children, to take part in this long march.” she said of the motorcade.

Police stifled a rally in Rawalpindi last week when Bhutto was held under house arrest for most of the day and police thwarted her efforts to drive through barricades outside her Islamabad home.

Court hearing

Pakistan’s supreme court is expected to resume a hearing into challenges to Musharraf’s controversial election victory this week and could reach a decision by the weekend, the Daily Times reported today.

Rivals had filed legal challenges in the supreme court arguing that Musharraf was ineligible to contest while still army chief. Musharraf said yesterday a general election would be held by January 9.

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