ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan's government freed thousands of critics jailed under emergency rule, and President Gen. Pervez Musharraf may step down as army chief this weekend, officials said Wednesday, moves which could help head off an opposition boycott of critical elections.
Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum told The Associated Press that Musharraf would quickly quit his army post and be sworn in for a new five-year term. "It may happen on Saturday ... I know the president, and he will honor his commitment," he said.
Meeting another central demand of domestic critics, the United States and the European Union, authorities said they had freed most of the thousands of people rounded up since emergency rule was proclaimed on Nov. 3.
Law Minister Afzal Hayder announced on state television that the government had freed 5,634 lawyers and political activists. He said 623 people remained in government custody and that they too would be released soon.
Those freed included Imran Khan, a former cricketer turned firebrand opposition leader.
"We're all very relieved, especially since this means he can now end his hunger strike," his ex-wife, Jemima Khan, told AP in London. "He's keen to make the point that although he's free, there are many more innocent people who are still in jail ... he'll now be able to protest more actively again."
A government official said Javed Hashmi, acting president of the party of Nawaz Sharif, Musharraf's most dogged rival, would also be freed. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to reporters.
Khan has a high profile but limited political clout, and Musharraf's more pressing need is to prevent former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto teaming up with Sharif and boycotting the vote.
Bhutto's party welcomed the releases but said thousands more of its supporters remained in custody and that Musharraf could not be trusted to keep his word.
"President Musharraf has made such promises before the nation and the international community in the past as well, and we will comment when he actually steps down as the army chief," party spokesman Farhatullah Babar said.
Washington has been hoping for a rapprochement between Musharraf and Bhutto. Her secular party would lend a key U.S. counter-terrorist ally badly needed democratic legitimacy.
Both Bhutto and Musharraf are calling for moderate political forces to reconcile and revitalize Pakistan's effort against rising Islamic extremism — an agenda that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte urged them to return to on a visit last week.
Bhutto continues to talk about allying with Sharif, a fellow former prime minister, to drive Musharraf from power if the emergency is not swiftly lifted.
But Sharif said that he had failed to convince her in a telephone conversation on Wednesday to join him in the drastic step of boycotting the election.
"It's a question of do we have to now be part of this illegal process that Gen. Musharraf has started?" Sharif said in an interview from exile in Saudi Arabia. "Benazir Bhutto has to first make up her mind ... I could not persuade her for the time being."
Musharraf, who has vowed to keep Sharif outside the political mainstream until after the ballot, held talks with Saudi leaders in Riyadh on Tuesday.
There have been no public indications that Musharraf is ready to relent. However, Sharif forecast that Saudi authorities would soon approve his plan to go home.
"They feel very strongly that I have a duty to perform in Pakistan and a role to play," Sharif said by telephone from the Red Sea town of Jiddah.
However, he said he didn't know if Saudi leaders had actually communicated that to Musharraf or how Musharraf had responded.
Musharraf has already designated a close ally, current deputy commander Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, as his replacement in the politically powerful position of chief of staff of the army.
Najam Sethi, editor of Pakistan's Daily Times newspaper, said Musharraf will however retain considerable clout even beyond the elections because he will be the mediator between the civilian government and the army.
"Pervez Musharraf is the army's candidate for the presidency. Full stop," Sethi said.
He said Bhutto was unlikely to boycott the elections because pro-Taliban Islamic parties would probably take part.
"If Ms. Bhutto doesn't contest the elections and sits with Nawaz Sharif, whereas the mullahs go ahead and participate, that could lead to a very interesting situation" — more dramatic than in 2002, when Islamist parties secured their best ever result.
"Musharraf won't be able to make things work if that happens," also because he will lose U.S. support, Sethi said.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court — whose chief justice and judges were hand-picked by Musharraf after he sacked their dissenting predecessors — is expected to clear the last legal obstacles to his continued rule as president. The Election Commission can then confirm his victory in a disputed presidential election held in November.
Despite Wednesday's conciliatory moves, baton-wielding policemen attacked dozens of journalists in the cities of Faisalabad and Quetta when they staged street rallies chanting "Musharraf, we do not accept your laws," and "Long live the freedom of journalism."
Musharraf justified the imposition of emergency rule by citing escalating danger posed by Islamist extremism. The army on Wednesday reported killing some 65 militants in a northern valley, bringing to more than 200 the number of fighters killed there in a week. The militants, who allegedly include foreign fighters arriving from Afghanistan, dispute the figures.
But the overwhelming majority of those detained under the crackdown have been politicians, lawyers, journalists and other moderates.
To stave off diplomatic isolation, Pakistan on Wednesday asked the 53-member Commonwealth of Britain and its former colonies to delay a decision on whether to suspend it.
In a phone call with his British counterpart, Pakistan caretaker Prime Minister Mohammedmian Soomro "expressed concern that any precipitate decision by (the Commonwealth) on Pakistan's participation in the Commonwealth would be unfortunate."
A suspension would be yet another international embarrassment for Pakistan, which was last kicked out of the organization in 1999 after Musharraf first seized power in a coup. It took the country five years to be reinstated.