ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte delivered a blunt message to Pakistan's military ruler, telling him emergency rule must be lifted and his opponents freed ahead of elections, the senior diplomat said Sunday.
"I urged the government to stop such actions, lift the state of emergency and release all political detainees," Negroponte said at a news conference at the heavily guarded U.S. Embassy at the end of his visit. "Emergency rule is not compatible with free, fair and credible elections."
However, Negroponte praised President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's efforts in the war on terror, and said he was heartened by the announcement of an election date for January 9.
Musharraf has insisted — publicly and in his two-hour meeting with Negroponte on Saturday — that he would not lift the widely criticized emergency powers unless the security situation improves.
Thousands of opponents have been jailed, Supreme Court judges purged and independent TV stations muffled since the emergency was declared Nov. 3. Just ahead of Negroponte's visit, Musharraf freed opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and a leading human rights activist and loosened his restrictions on several independent television news outlets.
Negroponte was measured in his comments, but expressed some impatience with Musharraf, saying he hoped to see more moves back 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.
Negroponte's trip was seen as a last best chance to avoid political turmoil in Pakistan, a key front in the war on terror.
On Saturday, the U.S. diplomat met for more than two hours with Musharraf and Pakistan's deputy army commander, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani. Kayani is widely expected to take over the powerful role of military chief in the coming weeks when Musharraf sheds his uniform and starts his second term as president.
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 Musharraf told Negroponte the emergency was needed to hold a successful vote.
Going into the 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.
"We want to work with the government and people of Pakistan and the political actors in Pakistan to put the political process back on track as soon as possible," Negroponte said Friday during a stop in Africa.
He arrived in Pakistan a few hours later and phoned former Prime Minister Bhutto — the highest-level U.S. contact with the Pakistani opposition leader since the emergency 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 U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
The conversation came just hours after Bhutto was released from house arrest, one of a number of face-saving measures the government took ahead of the senior American diplomat's arrival.
But there were also some ominous signs, with the broadcasts of two major independent television news stations — Geo and ARY, both of which transmit from nearby Dubai — being cut. Both stations said Dubai took action in response to pressure from Musharraf.
GEO broadcast a continuous video of a thunderstorm at sea, with its logo floating on the choppy waves. "The pressure was so intense from Gen. Musharraf," prompting the state-owned Dubai Media City to order the signal cut at midnight Friday, said Shahid Massood, Geo Group executive director, from Dubai.
Neither Emirati nor Pakistani officials commented on the allegations.
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.
She 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 due by Jan. 9.
The general, who until recently had been considered a vital U.S. ally and a bulwark in the war on terror, has steadfastly refused. Instead, he's expressed exasperation with the mounting Western pressure and has pressed ahead with disputed plans for January elections, swearing in an interim government Friday charged with preparing for the vote.
Musharraf has also come under fire for his military's recent losses in fighting with pro-Taliban militants in Swat, where violence has raged since July and insurgents have captured several villages, police stations and government building.
A top general announced Saturday that the army has massed 15,000 troops for a major assault on Islamic militants in the northern valley, and the army said it had killed 40 militants there.
A militant spokesman said the government's figures were greatly exaggerated, but acknowledged they had suffered some casualties.