ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Despite a blunt call from Washington's No. 2 diplomat that emergency rule must be lifted and political opponents freed ahead of elections, there was no immediate sign that President Gen. Pervez Musharraf would heed the advice.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte delivered the message during a two-hour meeting Saturday with Musharraf and Pakistan's deputy army commander, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. The envoy's visit was seen as a last best chance to ease the latest political turmoil in Pakistan.
But an official in the president's office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk with the media, said Saturday that Musharraf told Negroponte the emergency was needed to hold a successful vote.
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And on Sunday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Sadiq said the government was taking steps to hold free and fair elections. He said any decision on lifting the emergency would "be taken according to the ground situation."
Speaking during a news conference at the U.S. embassy earlier Sunday, Negroponte said he "urged the government to stop such actions, lift the state of emergency and release all political detainees" and that "Emergency rule is not compatible with free, fair and credible elections."
It's a view shared by opposition leaders, who insist that any vote held while thousands of opponents are in jail cannot be considered credible. They say most of those targeted in the emergency are pro-Western moderates, not the Islamic extremists Musharraf said he needed to combat.
The state of emergency came into effect Nov. 3, and since then, thousands of opponents have been jailed, Supreme Court judges purged and independent TV stations muffled.
Just ahead of Negroponte's visit, Musharraf made some concessions — freeing opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and a leading human rights activist, and loosening his restrictions on several independent television news outlets.
Though measured in his comments, Negroponte expressed some impatience with Musharraf, saying he hoped to see more steps toward democracy soon. "There remain some other issues that are yet to be considered, or yet to be undertaken," he said, without going into detail.
But despite Musharraf's apparent intransigence, Negroponte would not characterize his trip as a failure. "In diplomacy, as you know, we don't get instant replies when we have these kinds of dialogue," he said. "I'm sure the president is seriously considering the exchange we had."
Negroponte also praised Musharraf's efforts in the war on terror, and said he was heartened by the announcement that elections would be held by Jan. 9.
"President Musharraf has been and continues to be a strong voice against extremism," he said. "We value our partnership with the government of Pakistan under the leadership of President Musharraf."
Going into Saturday's meeting, senior Bush administration officials were clear on what they wanted: an end to the emergency, a date set for legislative elections in January, the release of opposition leaders and that Musharraf step down as army chief.
Kayani is widely expected to take over the powerful role of military chief when Musharraf sheds his uniform and starts his second term as president in the coming weeks.
Shortly after arriving in Pakistan, Negroponte phoned Bhutto, the highest-level U.S. contact with the Pakistani opposition leader since the emergency rule began.
In their discussion, Negroponte underscored Washington's opposition to the emergency and its desire to see her and other opposition figures free to peacefully take part in Pakistani politics, said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. The conversation came just hours after Bhutto was released from house arrest.
Bhutto and Musharraf had been negotiating a power-sharing arrangement, but talks apparently collapsed as the general moved against the opposition following his decision to suspend the constitution.
On Sunday, Negroponte urged the two to restart talks and ease "the atmosphere of brinkmanship and political confrontation."
"If steps were taken by both sides to move back toward the kind of reconciliation discussions they were having recently, we think that would be very positive and could help improve the political environment," he said.
Bhutto has in recent days made increasingly strident demands for Musharraf to resign, and has proposed the opposition form a unity front to serve as a transition government ahead of elections.
Musharraf has steadfastly refused. Instead, he's expressed exasperation with the mounting Western pressure and has pressed ahead with plans for elections, swearing in an interim government Friday charged with preparing for the vote.