In his first major address since seizing power five days ago, Pakistan's new military ruler outlined ambitious plans to revive the economy, announced the withdrawal of some military forces from the Indian border and pledged to return the country to "true" democracy as soon as possible.
Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who overthrew Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Tuesday and suspended parliamentary government, said he will rule for an undetermined period along with a six-member National Security Council. And, apparently trying to soothe anxious neighbors and the world at large, he declared that he will handle Pakistan's nuclear arsenal with "restraint."
"This is not martial law; it is only another path to democracy," said Musharraf, 56, in a half-hour televised speech that had been anxiously awaited at home and abroad. "The armed forces have no intention of staying in charge any longer than absolutely necessary to pave the way for true democracy to flourish in Pakistan."
Saying he hopes to establish friendly relations with neighboring India and return to dialogue with Pakistan's longtime rival, Musharraf said he was making an immediate gesture of "unilateral military de-escalation" by ordering a troop withdrawal from the tense Indo-Pakistani border. Military officials here said the withdrawal began this morning.
Indian officials in New Delhi reacted to Musharraf's offer with skepticism, pointing out that Pakistani forces would still be positioned along the most sensitive frontier in the Himalayan region of Kashmir -- portions of which both countries claim.
Musharraf, who spoke first in English and then in Urdu, also stressed that he seeks "friendly relations with all the major powers, especially the United States." He said Pakistan will honor its international commitments and pursue a nuclear policy of "restraint and responsibility." Pakistan first tested nuclear weapons last year, soon after India.
The army chief, who is the fifth military leader to seize power since Pakistan was founded in 1947, made it clear that the military will retain a strong institutional hand in government. He said the new National Security Council -- a body long advocated by the armed forces -- will include himself as army chief, the heads of two other military branches and the Pakistani president, Rafiq Tarar, whose post is largely ceremonial.
Musharraf also said that he will form a cabinet of ministers and an advisory council of experts in legal, foreign and national affairs. He announced no appointments but he said the officials and advisers would be chosen on merit.
In a clear gesture to Western concerns, he emphasized his belief in a moderate form of Islam, saying that the religion teaches "tolerance and not hatred, peace and not violence." He called on Pakistani clerics to "curb elements" that have misused Islam, an apparent reference to terrorism in the name of Islamic zeal that has alarmed Washington and other Western governments.
On the domestic front, Musharraf outlined an ambitious and wide-ranging agenda aimed at reforming political institutions, invigorating the economy, restoring law and order, rebuilding investor confidence, depoliticizing state institutions, strengthening the federal system and ensuring "swift and across-the-board" financial accountability.
Declaring that "corruption of horrendous proportions has threatened the very basis of our state," he vowed to "ruthlessly pursue" Pakistanis who have evaded taxes or defaulted on loans, and he urged such people to come forward within one month or face prosecution. He also pledged to make his own income and tax returns available for "public scrutiny."
Over the past two days, military officials already had begun cracking down on alleged financial scofflaws, including a number of top officials in the ousted government of Sharif, who has been in military custody since Tuesday. More than 100 people have been detained, offices have been sealed, records seized and long lists of loan defaulters published. More than $4 billion in bank loans to former Pakistani officials and businessmen is said to be in default.
Many Pakistanis have welcomed early signals of Musharraf's plans to reform the political system and revive the economy, but experts have cautioned that the obstacles facing him are enormous. If the army fails to fulfill its pledges, they said, public patience may wear thin and the position of Islamic extremists in Pakistani society may be strengthened.
Reaction to Musharraf's speech among political leaders and analysts was mixed. Some observers said they were struck by his sincerity and seriousness, while others expressed alarm at his failure to establish a timetable for a return to civilian government. They said his address reminded them of promises by previous Pakistani military leaders whose rule later turned despotic.
"In 50 years, this was the fourth time I have heard the same speech; this sermon is far too familiar to Pakistani ears," said Sen. Iqbal Hyder of the Pakistan People's Party. Pakistan has been ruled by the armed forces for nearly half of its existence as an independent nation.
The Clinton administration, too, noted the absence of a scheduled return to civilian rule. "We welcome Gen. Musharraf's clear statement of commitment to restore constitutional democracy . . . however, we're disappointed he did not specify a quick timetable," said White House spokesman Mike Hammer. "We will continue to strongly urge that there be a return to democratic rule, and we will be observing his actions to see if they follow his words."
[On Monday, the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan, William Milam, said he was heartened by Musharraf's pledged to return to democracy, but was troubled by the lack of a timetable. "Yes, we were disappointed at that, the lack of aspecific timeframe, but we were also heartened by his pledge that the military would remain in power only as long as absolutley necessary," Milam told reporters in Islamabad, the Reuters news agency reported.]
Rana Nazir Ahmed, secretary general of the Pakistani Muslim League, which is headed by Sharif, said the speech had "deepened doubts about the future of democracy in Pakistan." The policy of financial accountability, he added, should "not be used to settle scores with politicians. It must also cover the generals."
But several other civilian and military observers said they were heartened by Musharraf's moderate tone, by his efforts to reach out to India and the West and his apparent determination to reform a political system that is widely viewed as corrupt and ineffective. Since Tuesday's coup, the majority of Pakistanis have cheered the demise of Sharif and welcomed the military's action.
Musharraf did not mention Sharif or any other civilian official by name, and he did not criticize the deposed government. He stressed that he had not sought power, saying it had been thrust upon him by "circumstances not of my making."
Musharraf took power after Sharif, who had been quarreling with him for months, abruptly announced his dismissal as chief of staff while the general was flying home to Karachi from a visit to Sri Lanka. Military officials and other sources said the commercial flight carrying Musharraf was ordered not to land in Pakistan but finally did, with only a few minutes of fuel remaining, after soldiers seized Karachi airport.
Staff writer Charles Babington in Washington contributed to this report.
In his first speech since taking power, Gen. Pervez Musharraf told Pakistanis that he would:
* Reduce number of troops on the Indian border
* Establish a military-technocrat government
* Eventually return Pakistan to civilian rule
* Use restraint in nuclear weapons policy
* Promote a moderate form of Islam
* Reform corrupt government institutions