| Benazir Bhutto in Islamabad on Wednesday. (AP)
Islamabad, Nov. 7 (Reuters): Former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto threatened today to lead a mass protest heading to the capital unless President Pervez Musharraf quits as army chief, holds elections and restores the constitution.
Bhutto, leader of the largest Opposition party and the politician most capable of mobilising street power, gave Musharraf until Friday to comply.
Government officials have said national elections due in January will be held on time and a member of Musharraf’s inner circle said emergency rule was likely to be lifted within 2 or 3 weeks. Deputy information minister Tariq Azim Khan said Musharraf would keep it “very short”.
But Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup and imposed emergency rule last Saturday citing a hostile judiciary and rising militancy, has not yet personally confirmed either.
Bhutto made her political demands clear at an Islamabad news conference after meeting members of her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and smaller Opposition parties.
“We can’t work for dictatorship. We can work for democracy,” she said. “General Musharraf can open the door for negotiations only if he revives the constitution, retires as chief of army staff and sticks to the schedule of holding elections.”
She said her supporters would begin their protest on November 13 from Lahore, capital of Punjab province and the nation’s political nerve-centre, and travel to Islamabad to stage a sit-in.
She and her entourage would set off by car in what was expected to build into a big procession, with supporters also travelling to throng the route as the cavalcade later wended its way to the capital in what Bhutto described as a “long march”. “The ball is now in the government’s court,” she said.
Her PPP is also due to hold a public protest rally in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, next to Islamabad, on Saturday. Police said it would be blocked.
Bhutto returned to Pakistan with Musharraf’s blessing on October 18 after almost eight years of self-imposed exile, amid speculation that she could end up sharing power with him after elections, forging a partnership favoured by the US.
In Islamabad, 400 PPP loyalists marched up to riot police blocking their way to parliament, where lawmakers moments earlier had rubber-stamped the emergency declaration.
Police fired tear gas over their heads and beat and arrested the few that broke through barricades topped with barbed-wire, including several women.
Naheed Khan, a close Bhutto aide, waded into the brief melee, whacked a policeman on the shoulder and screamed: “Who are you' How dare you take action against women'”