Released, Bhutto rejects caretaker government
(The New York Times) LAHORE, Pakistan, Nov. 16 — Hours after being released from house arrest, the Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto today rejected a new caretaker government appointed to oversee elections in Pakistan and repeated her vow not to re-open talks with the country’s military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
The police confirmed earlier today that they had ended Ms. Bhutto’s house arrest, a gesture that appeared timed to ease tensions before talks between General Musharraf and Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte, who arrived in Pakistan today. Mr. Negroponte is likely to urge General Musharraf, the president, to lift emergency rule, American officials have said.
Saying that the country was under threat from Islamic extremists, General Musharraf declared a state of emergency on Nov. 3. He suspended the country’s Constitution, named a new Supreme Court and shut down independent news stations.
Since then, the authorities have arrested an estimated 2,500 opposition politicians, lawyers and human rights activists, and all political protests have been banned.
Speaking to reporters from behind the fence at her Lahore compound today, Ms. Bhutto renewed her demand that General Musharraf resign, telling reporters that the state of emergency had targeted his moderate opponents, not Islamic extremists.
“Do we want to deny this nation its true legitimate leadership?” she asked. “The West’s interests lie in a democratic Pakistan.”
The emergency has been widely condemned by Pakistanis and appears to have reduced General Musharraf’s popularity. The move came days before the country’s Supreme Court was expected to rule that he was ineligible to serve another five years as president.
Critics in the country have rejected the argument that the emergency was required to fight extremism, saying the general is using the specter of terrorism to cling to power.
The government has appeared to soften some aspects of the crackdown in recent days. In addition to lifting Ms. Bhutto’s house arrest and freeing a number of activists belonging to her Pakistan Peoples Party from detention, some independent television stations are back on the air, albeit under stringent new reporting restrictions.
Opposition leaders scoffed at the moves as token measures designed to curry favor with American officials before Mr. Negroponte’s arrival. They said General Musharraf has a long history of appeasing senior American officials with conciliatory gestures during such visits.
American officials have said that Mr. Negroponte will urge General Musharraf to end the state of emergency, release detained activists, resign from his post as army chief and hold free and fair elections.
For the last two weeks, however, General Musharraf has ignored such calls from President Bush.
In Islamabad, General Musharraf swore in a new caretaker government charged with carrying out elections scheduled for Jan. 9.
Opposition parties boycotted the proceedings and have threatened to boycott the elections, which they say cannot be free and fair under a state of emergency that eliminates basic rights.
In her news conference, Ms. Bhutto said that she had spoken with the country’s other main opposition leader, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, by telephone on Thursday and that the two of them would form an alliance against General Musharraf.
Ms. Bhutto said that the focus of Mr. Negroponte’s talks should be General Musharraf’s exit from power, not the revival of a dialogue with him. Before the state of emergency, American officials had hoped that the two leaders could form an alliance of Pakistani moderates to counter a rising Islamic insurgency in the country’s northwest.
While under house arrest earlier this week, Ms. Bhutto said that Musharraf was so unpopular — and untrustworthy — that she could no longer consider a political alliance with him.
“We are skeptical of dialogue,” said Ms. Bhutto. “We think we are lured into dialogue but get nothing.” She said that dialogue “can harm the democratic movement.” Referring to what she said was a need to focus on General Musharraf’s departure from power, she added: “It will be better to talk about exit strategy.”
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