ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto vowed Wednesday to hold a rally near the Pakistani capital to protest emergency rule, despite threats from officials to crush it.
Lawyers scuffled with police during a third day of protests against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's weekend declaration of a state of emergency.
Attorneys' attempts to demonstrate have been repeatedly put down with police force. However, a violent clash with Bhutto's supporters would dramatically escalate the political crisis engulfing a country that is also battling rising Islamic militancy.
"We denounce the government ban, and want to make it clear that our supporters and leaders will reach Rawalpindi for the rally," Babar Awan, a senior member of her Pakistan People's Party, told The Associated Press.
The mayor of Rawalpindi, a garrison city just south of Islamabad, said police would be out in force to prevent anyone reaching the park where Bhutto hoped to address supporters on Friday.
"We will ensure that they don't violate the ban on rallies, and if they do it, the government will take action according to the law," mayor Javed Akhlas told AP.
Akhlas said there was a "strong threat" of another suicide attack against Bhutto, who escaped a blast during a procession welcoming her home from exile in Karachi on Oct. 18 that killed more than 140 people.
A suicide bomber blew himself up a few hundred meters (yards) from President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's office in Rawalpindi on Oct. 30, killing seven people.
With the encouragement of the United States, Musharraf had been holding talks with Bhutto that were widely expected to lead to a power-sharing arrangement after parliamentary elections slated for January.
That would introduce more democracy to a nuclear-armed country where the increasing strength of Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants is alarming the West.
But with the constitution suspended, authorities have detained thousands of opposition activists, lawyers and human rights workers, put a stranglehold on the media and suggested the election could be delayed by up to a year. Officials say about 2,500 people have been detained, though opposition parties put the figure at 3,500.
Bhutto said Tuesday that Musharraf's resort to authoritarian measures was a "breach of trust" with her and that the talks were off.
However, she also suggested that they could resume if circumstances change.
"I think we should all come down as strongly as we can for the restoration of democracy. And if General Musharraf wants to find a way out, well the ball is in his court," she said.
Bhutto invited other opposition parties to a meeting in Islamabad on Wednesday to discuss a joint strategy against the emergency.
However, the party of Nawaz Sharif, the premier Musharraf deposed in a coup in 1999, snubbed the gathering.
Bhutto's earlier negotiations with Musharraf meant that she had broken with the rest of the opposition, said Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party.
"There was a clear understanding ... but, Benazir Bhutto violated it," Iqbal told the AP.
He challenged Bhutto to make a clear statement that she had severed her ties with the military-led government.
Like the opposition, Washington and other foreign donors to Pakistan are pressing loudly for the elections to be held on time. They are also urging Musharraf to keep a promise to quit his post as army chief — the real source of his power.
"For elections to be credible, opposition political party leaders and their party workers must be released from jail or house arrest. The media must be free to report on events and share their opinions with the public," U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson said after meeting the head of the election commission on Tuesday.
Musharraf says he suspended the constitution because the courts were hampering Pakistan's effort to fight extremism — for instance by ordering the release of suspects held without charge.
But opponents accuse him of a mounting a last-ditch maneuver to stay in power.
Musharraf purged the Supreme Court just as it was preparing to rule on the legality of his contested re-election as president last month. The court has also pressed for authorities to allow the return of Sharif from exile in Saudi Arabia.
On Wednesday, police pushed back about 80 lawyers who tried to gather near the main court complex in Rawalpindi, said Mohammed Khan Zaman, a member of the local lawyers' association.
In Islamabad, about 200 attorneys held a rally inside the district court, chanting "Go Musharraf, Go" and "No Musharraf, No."
Lawyers particularly are incensed by the ouster of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, an independent-minded judge who Musharraf had tried unsuccessfully to fire earlier this year.
Chaudhry is under house arrest in Islamabad but managed on Tuesday to use a cell phone to urge lawyers to take to the streets.
"We should act upon this message and it will be decided once and for all if the army or the people will rule Pakistan," Zaman said.