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Massive Police Turnout in Pakistan Stalls Musharraf's Foes

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VIDEO | Bhutto Under House Detention in Pakistan
By Pamela Constable and Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 10, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Nov. 9 -- Pakistan's pro-democracy movement hung in limbo Friday, with the one-day detention of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and the arrest of several thousand activists raising new doubts about the opposition's ability to challenge emergency rule.

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Security forces barricaded Bhutto inside her house in Islamabad behind rings of barbed wire, concrete blocks and riot police for 14 hours Friday, while blanketing the nearby city of Rawalpindi to prevent protesters from reaching the site of an anti-government rally called by Bhutto.

The massive police deployment, which sealed all major routes between the two cities, was combined with a sweeping nighttime roundup of Bhutto supporters to avert what could have been a day of both triumph and bloodshed for opponents of Gen. Pervez Musharraf's government.

In northwestern Pakistan, meanwhile, a suicide bomber attacked the home of a federal cabinet minister in the city of Peshawar, killing at least four people outside. Amir Muqam, the minister for political affairs, is a native of Swat, a volatile region being occupied by armed loyalists of a militant cleric. The cleric reportedly had threatened Muqam last week on a local radio station.

Musharraf, who is also army chief, imposed emergency rule Nov. 3 in the face of growing opposition from civil society and a spiraling Islamic extremist insurgency. He also fired several Supreme Court justices as the court was preparing to rule on his eligibility to serve another term as president. Bhutto, the country's leading opposition figure, has been calling daily for him to restore the constitution, step down as army chief and hold elections immediately.

On Thursday, under mounting pressure from the Bush administration, Musharraf announced that he would hold elections by Feb. 15 and reiterated that he would resign his army post. But he did not indicate when he might end emergency rule, and government officials warned that protesters would be forcibly prevented from gathering in Rawalpindi on Friday.

By early morning, streets leading to the rally site at Liaqat Park were barricaded with barbed wire, and major routes leading into Rawalpindi were blocked with buses, trucks and tractors. Police, under orders not to allow anyone to protest, carried out the instructions with orderly zeal. Hundreds stood at attention outside the leafy park. Motorcycle squadrons slowly circled the streets in formation, and police on horseback waited nearby.

The normally teeming streets in the garrison city were almost deserted, with private traffic banned and stores ordered shut. A national holiday had also been declared for the birthday of a famed Pakistani poet, and schools and government offices were closed.

Despite the stifling security, a handful of Bhutto supporters tried to breach the cordon at midafternoon. For several hours, they played cat and mouse with police, darting out of narrow alleys to shout slogans and throw rocks. Within seconds, police charged at them with batons raised, and the clusters scattered. If they were slow to disperse, troops in armored carriers launched tear gas canisters after them.

Nazaki Ali, 31, a driver in the crowd, said that people were afraid of the police and that "millions" would have turned out if Bhutto had been allowed to appear at the rally. Pervez Minhas, a lawyer and activist for Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, said he would be back to demonstrate another day.

"When the great lady comes over here to Rawalpindi, we will go to welcome her," he said. "The government is afraid of her because she is the real leader of the people."

Although never formally placed under house arrest, Bhutto was physically prevented from leaving the premises of her suburban house all day. Twice she attempted to move past the inner cordon of barbed wire but was stopped by police. The second time, at about 4 p.m., she climbed through the sunroof of her white Land Cruiser and spoke through a loudspeaker to hundreds of journalists who had gathered beyond the barricades and thick lines of police. Officials did not prevent her from speaking, and cameramen were allowed to stand on their trucks for a better view.

"These barbed wires are not here for me as an individual, but against the hopes and aspirations of the people of Pakistan," Bhutto said, her voice hoarse from days of speeches. She said more than 5,000 activists from her Pakistan People's Party had been arrested in the past 24 hours, but then added, "We consider this a victory, because the entire government has been brought to a standstill."

Before officials lifted the order late Friday, a government spokesman said Bhutto had been confined to her home for her own safety. Tariq Azim Khan, the deputy information minister, said that if she had "gone out and held a massive rally in Rawalpindi, she would have been exposing herself to grave risk. That's what we were trying to prevent."

In Rawalpindi, police chief Saud Aziz said the tight security was also partly aimed at preventing the rally from being targeted by suicide bombers. During Bhutto's homecoming Oct. 18, after eight years in exile, a mass celebration turned to horror when a suicide bombing of her motorcade killed 140 people in the city of Karachi.

Bhutto vowed to continue pressing the Musharraf government through mass public protests. She called on supporters to form a massive caravan Tuesday and proceed in a "long march" to the capital from the city of Lahore, about 250 miles to the east. "We will come out and demonstrate until democracy is restored," she said.

For much of the day, the scene outside Bhutto's home resembled a dramatic but controlled ballet, in which riot police and plainclothes intelligence agents periodically pounced on Bhutto supporters and hustled them into police vans as they shouted, "Long live Bhutto!" and other slogans. A young woman carrying garlands of flowers was pushed into a police car, and dozens of party supporters were dragged into blue patrol wagons that then sped away.

But there was no serious violence, and police acted with restraint, even stopping to allow detainees to briefly address reporters. They also permitted a steady stream of senior politicians and legislators from Bhutto's party to enter her house and to give lengthy street interviews in which many condemned the government as dictatorial. Under the state of emergency, neither public gatherings nor critical public comments about the Musharraf regime are permitted.

"This is a naked, outright dictatorship," said Abida Hussain, an experienced politician from the rival Pakistan Muslim League party and a onetime critic of Bhutto, who came to see her Friday. Standing in a scrum of cameras, Hussain denounced Musharraf as a "veteran liar" who refuses to "shed his second skin," the military uniform.

Despite the opposition's show of bravado, it was unclear whether Bhutto might still be open to a power-sharing deal with Musharraf, which had been under negotiation for months before she returned from exile and which had the tacit support of the Bush administration.

It was also unclear whether Musharraf, who has become deeply unpopular, would be able to keep a lid on the burgeoning protest movement, which has gathered momentum for months and intensified since he imposed emergency rule.

Witte reported from Rawalpindi. Special correspondent Imtiaz Ali reported from Peshawar.


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