Bhutto Challenges Pakistan's President
Thursday, November 8, 2007; 2:31 AM
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.
At least 800 of her supporters were arrested overnight across the eastern province of Punjab ahead of a Friday rally she is planning in Rawalpindi in defiance of a government ban, Bhutto spokesman Jamil Soomro said Thursday.
But the government denied the arrests, saying no such crackdown had been ordered.
"According to my information, only four members from her party were detained last night when they defied a ban on rallies," Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said.
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.
President Bush, meanwhile, told the U.S.-allied general that Pakistan must go through with parliamentary elections that had been planned for January. Bush commented after a senior U.S. official called Musharraf an "indispensable" ally in the war against extremist groups.
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.