Pakistan's armed forces chief declared a state of emergency today, suspending parliament and the constitution and naming himself the country's chief executive as the military formalized its control over Pakistan two days after it overthrew the democratically elected government.
"The whole of Pakistan will come under the control of the armed forces of Pakistan," Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf, the army chief of staff, declared in a written statement.
Although the statement stopped short of declaring martial law, it left the country under effective military rule for the fourth time since it won independence from Britain in 1947.
The military's announcement seemed likely to provoke strong international condemnation and further isolate Pakistan, an impoverished nation that depends largely on Western aid and loans. The Clinton administration and Western lenders have called for democracy to be restored as quickly as possible.
"We don't like it when military leaders forcibly displace elected governments," President Clinton said at a White House news conference a few hours before the army issued its statement. Clinton said he had asked U.S. Ambassador William B. Milam, who has been on vacation in Washington, to return to Islamabad "to underscore my view directly to the military authorities and to hear their intentions."
U.S. officials said Milam was to meet with Musharraf later today, the first contact between the administration and the military leadership since Tuesday's bloodless takeover.
Administration officials had studiously avoided describing the army move as a "coup" -- a legal designation that requires the cutoff of economic aid under legislation aimed at discouraging military leaders from toppling democratic governments. But a senior administration official said that as a result of this morning's army statement, the United States was now "regarding it as a military takeover."
As a result, the official said, "we are going to invoke" the legal requirements to cut off remaining foreign assistance to Pakistan. In practice there is little U.S. aid to suspend: Washington has already severed most economic and military ties with Pakistan as a consequence of the country's pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The 1 a.m. statement issued by Musharraf set no time limit for the state of emergency. It said that all government officials would "cease to hold office." The National Assembly and all provincial legislatures were suspended and provincial governments and governors were dismissed. The statement said the Supreme Court and other courts would continue to function as long as they do not contradict military orders.
The statement said that President Rafiq Tarar, who holds a largely ceremonial post, will remain in office but will act "in accordance with the advice" of Musharraf, effectively becoming a subordinate of the general.
Fearing an outflow of capital and foreign currency, the military also suspended all international currency transactions for one week.
The announcement came two days after the army deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and placed him and his top aides under house arrest. There has been no official word on their condition.
Until this morning's announcement, the nation had remained in suspense about the military's plans, although a strong hint of its intentions came Thursday afternoon when army troops sealed off the National Assembly building. Legislators had been scheduled to meet there today.
Army officials have spent the past 48 hours conferring with legal experts and political leaders as to what steps to take next, but this morning's statement made no mention of any plans to hold elections or form an interim civilian government, as had been widely expected here. Musharraf is expected to appoint a roster of officials, including civilians and members of the military, to administer the country.
Top military officials were said to be nearing the final stages of a long-range plan to overhaul Pakistan's political system, which is widely viewed by the country's 133 million citizens as corrupt and inefficient.
"There is no doubt in our minds that the world will never accept military rule, but we are in for the long haul," said a senior army official who is close to the discussions. "We have decided we must cleanse a political system that allows corrupt people to decide the destiny of our people."
The army appeared to have been bolstered by an outpouring of public support it has received since overthrowing the 31-month-old Sharif government. The army seized power hours after Sharif ordered Musharraf to resign, after weeks of mounting tension between the two officials.
Few Pakistanis were immediately aware of the army's early-morning announcement today. Across the capital Thursday, however, people from all walks of life expressed gratitude and relief at the army's takeover. They described Sharif as an autocratic and arrogant leader who had blocked constitutional avenues of dissent, and who had failed to revive the economy.
"People very much appreciate this thing. The government we had was too proud and its policies were not good for the country," said Mohammed Amin, 43, a drapery seller. "We all want democracy, not martial law, but Allah knows what he is doing and what we need."
"The entire nation has heaved a sigh of relief," said Khurshid Ahmed, a scholar and former senator from the Islamic Jamaat-e-Islami Party. "Nobody wants martial law, but we need a transition to a system that works. The greatest threat to democracy is not the army, it is the political and economic mafia that have ruined the country."
Before this morning's announcement, the military appeared to be gaining limited approval from some Western diplomats. One envoy said he was optimistic Musharraf and his aides would act responsibly, adding that they were "bending over backwards" to legitimize the takeover and make it palatable to the world.
By declaring the state of emergency, however, the army appears to have acted largely without concern for the appearance of legality and constitutionality. Military officials made it clear they have no intention of allowing a return to democratic politics as usual. "There is no question of a return to the former political setup," said one army official, adding that 12 years of democratically elected governments has promoted a culture of corruption and cronyism.
The armed forces have ruled Pakistan for 25 years of its 52-year existence. Democratic rule was restored in 1988 and elections have been held five times since then. But no prime minister has been able to complete a term in office.
Staff writer John Lancaster in Washington contributed to this report.