LAHORE, Pakistan – The husband of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (search) was whisked off a plane and spirited away by police upon his return from a trip overseas to prevent him from holding a major rally in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore Saturday.
Asif Ali Zardari (search) was taken from the airport and dropped at his home, even as between 100 and 150 opposition activists who had managed to evade a heavy police blockade of Lahore airport were arrested after clashing with police. About 200 other protesters were arrested elsewhere in the city.
"Down with Musharraf! Long live Bhutto! Long live democracy!" activists at the airport shouted before they were baton-charged and then bundled away in police vans. Three or four were bleeding.
In recent days, party officials say thousands of activists from Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party have been rounded up around the country.
The planned rally was a carefully orchestrated bid by the opposition to boost the political profile of Zardari, who was freed on bail in December after eight years in jail on corruption charges, and Bhutto's party, marginalized during the five-year rule of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf (search).
Zardari had traveled to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to visit his wife, who lives there in self-imposed exile to avoid arrest on graft charges. The opposition had trumpeted his return as a test of Musharraf's commitment to democracy and tolerance of political opponents.
As part of security measures, unauthorized gatherings of more than four people were banned, and on Friday authorities declared a "red alert" to prevent "any acts of terrorism" at Lahore and Karachi airports.
Late Friday, top PPP leaders including Secretary-General Jehangir Bader and Punjab province President Qasim Zia were arrested as they held a meeting at a house in Lahore.
Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed (search) said the party officials and activists would soon be freed and denied claims Zardari had been arrested. He claimed the opposition, which had offered to pay the airfares of journalists who agreed to return with Zardari on the flight from Dubai, was intentionally trying to create problems.
"Police dropped him at his home in Lahore and he must be having his breakfast by now," Ahmed told The Associated Press. "Asif Ali Zardari is a free person. He can go anywhere."
Chief Minister of Punjab province Chaudhry Pervez Elahi told Geo television that police provided "security" for Zardari. "He said he is worried about his security, and we sent police to Lahore airport to safely drop him at his home on his request."
PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar said although police had not arrested Zardari, other party leaders who arrived with him from Dubai were taken into custody. Among those arrested was party President Mukhdoom Amin Fahim.
"I condemn the arrest of my supporters and party leaders and demand their release," Zardari told AP from his home in Lahore.
"By not allowing me to hold a peaceful rally, the government has unmasked its face. They are dictators. There is a fascist government here, and I announce that our struggle for restoration of real democracy will continue," he said.
He said he still planned to hold a rally in the city in the next two days.
"I will do it and they cannot stop me," he said. Zardari condemned police for roughly dragging away his supporters, including some women.
ARY television reported that police at the airport manhandled journalists who traveled with Zardari from Dubai, snatching away their cameras.
Bhutto, who was twice elected prime minister, is opposed to Musharraf's rule. Both her governments were dismissed because of allegations of corruption and misrule. Zardari was jailed in 1996 after Bhutto's second government was dismissed.
Zardari's release on bail in December was seen as a possible sign of rapprochement between Bhutto and Musharraf, who share a pro-Western outlook.
Yet Musharraf's relations with the main opposition parties remain frosty. After seizing power in a military coup in 1999, Musharraf held elections in late 2002 but failed to resign as army chief as he had promised.