Top American Envoy Meets With Musharraf, Urges Him to Move Toward Democracy

Washington's No. 2 diplomat met with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on Saturday after talking by phone overnight with one of the military ruler's chief rivals, a bit of face-to-face diplomacy aimed at convincing the general to move back toward democracy.

Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte's trip was seen as a last best chance to avoid political turmoil in Pakistan, which has seen its Supreme Court purged and thousands of protesters detained since Musharraf declared emergency rule on Nov. 3.

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Joining Musharraf and Negroponte in the meeting, which went on for more than two hours, was Paksitan's deputy army commander, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, said an official in the president's office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk with the media.

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.

The official said Musharraf told Negroponte that the emergency was needed to hold peaceful elections. U.S. officials were not immediately available to comment on the meeting.

Negroponte phoned opposition leader Benazir Bhutto overnight, the State Department said, in the highest-level U.S. contact with the Pakistani opposition leader since the emergency began.

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. A prominent human rights activist was also released, and several opposition television news stations were allowed back on the air.

But there were also some ominous signs, with two major independent television news stations, Geo and ARY — which transmit from nearby Dubai — deciding to take their broadcasts off the air in response to what they said was pressure from Musharraf on the Dubai government to shut them down.

GEO news broadcast a continuous video of a thunderstorm at sea, with its logo floating on the choppy waves. It said it had made the decision after receiving word that "the government of Pakistan is using its influence with a foreign country to get the Geo TV network closed down."

Pakistan's government did not immediately comment 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. Bhutto was freed Friday from house arrest imposed three days earlier to stop her from leading anti-Musharraf protests.

Negroponte "wanted to hear from her how she viewed the political situation in Pakistan," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said of the call to Bhutto, who has been increasingly strident in her demands that Musharraf resign. She has proposed that the opposition come together in a unity front, which could serve as a transition government ahead of elections if Musharraf can be convinced to step down.

The general, who has been considered a vital U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, has steadfastly refused. In recent interviews, he has expressed exasperation with the mounting pressure from the West since he declared the emergency.

After meeting with Musharraf, Negroponte was scheduled to hold talks with top officials from Pakistan's foreign ministry. He was also expected to meet with several other political and military leaders here, underscoring Washington's desire to reach out to a wide array of Pakistani decision-makers.

In his discussion with Bhutto, Negroponte underscored Washington's opposition to Musharraf's extraconstitutional actions and its desire to see her and other opposition figures free to peacefully participate in Pakistan's political sphere, McCormack said.

Negroponte arrived Friday from a stop in Africa, where he said that the democratic process in Pakistan had been "derailed."

"Our message is that 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.

On Friday, Musharraf swore in an interim government headed by a loyalist former Senate chairman. Parliament was dissolved Thursday after completing its five-year term. The caretakers will manage the country until elections due by Jan. 9.

Opposition parties as well as the U.S. and Britain say the ballot cannot be fair unless the restrictions are lifted.