ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto described Pakistan on Saturday as a pressure cooker about to explode, as President Pervez Musharraf’s government tightened screws on media by ordering out three British journalists.
Having invoked emergency powers a week ago, Gen. Musharraf has sacked most of the country’s judges, put senior ones under house arrest, and ordered police to round up most of the opposition leadership and anyone else deemed troublesome.
He has also placed curbs on media. Private news channels are off the air and transmissions by the BBC and CNN have been blocked, though newspapers are publishing freely.
“Pakistan under dictatorship is a pressure cooker,” Bhutto said in an address to diplomats at a reception hosted by loyalists at the Senate on Saturday night. “Without a place to vent, the passion of our people for liberty threatens to explode.”
On Saturday, three journalists from Britain’s Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph were expelled for “foul and abusive” language about the Pakistani leadership that officials said appeared in an editorial on Nov. 9. A spokeswoman for the newspaper group in London declined to comment.
The editorial said Musharraf governed with a “combination of incompetence and brutality” and has become “part of the problem” in the battle against Islamic militants.
'Afraid of an unarmed girl'
Bhutto, the Pakistani politician most capable of rousing mass protests, was stopped from leaving her Islamabad residence on Friday to lead a rally in neighboring Rawalpindi, where police used tear gas to disperse her followers.
A detention order against her was later lifted due in part to pressure from the United States, but when she tried on Saturday to visit Pakistan’s deposed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who has been under house arrest for the past week, she was stopped from approaching his house.
“He is the chief justice, he is the real chief justice,” Bhutto blared over a megaphone, after dozens of helmeted police blocked her bulletproof Land Cruiser when she tried to visit the independent-minded chief justice who was removed from his post following Musharraf's state of emergency.
She tried to convince them to let her pass, but turned back after they refused. "Those holding guns are afraid of an unarmed girl," Bhutto's supporters chanted.
Musharraf insists he called the week-old emergency to help fight Islamic extremists who control swaths of territory near the Afghan border. But the main targets of his subsequent crackdown in this nation of 160 million people have been his most outspoken critics, including the increasingly independent courts and media.
Outside the chief justice's house, Bhutto accused Musharref of having “allowed (firebrand Islamic cleric) Maulana Fazlullah to snatch Swat” — a former tourist destination where fighting has raged for months — “but you are beating unarmed people.”
Suspected militants have abducted scores of soldiers in the region in recent weeks, including eight on Saturday, who were stopped at a makeshift roadblock and overpowered, government and military officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
The government — under mounting pressure from the United States and other Western allies to follow through with promises to restore democracy — has announced that parliamentary elections initially slated for January would be held no more than a month later.
And Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum said Saturday that the state of emergency would "end within one month." He provided no further details and would not say when a formal announcement might come.
President Bush on Saturday called Musharraf’s promises “positive steps,” throwing U.S. support firmly behind the Pakistani leader in the fight against Islamic militants.
Prospects for Bhutto-Musharraf alliance dim
On Friday, security forces threw a cordon around Bhutto's villa in an upscale neighborhood of the capital and rounded up thousands of her supporters to prevent a planned demonstration against the crackdown. But she was allowed to leave her home 24 hours later, meeting first with party colleagues and then addressing a small journalists' protest.
The restrictions on Bhutto dimmed the prospect of her forming a U.S.-friendly alliance with Musharraf against militants who have seized control of an ever-greater area of northwestern Pakistan.
Some U.S. officials have expressed concern that the political crisis will actually distract Pakistan from that task.
But the Bush administration continues to describe Musharraf as an "indispensable" ally against the Taliban and al-Qaida, suggesting it is unlikely to yield to calls from some lawmakers in Washington for cuts in its generous aid to Pakistan, much of it to the powerful military.
Bhutto, for her part, has left open the possibility of re-entering talks with Musharraf on issues including her wish to serve a third term as prime minister of this nuclear-armed nation of more than 160 million people. Her return home last month, following eight years in exile, came after he agreed to drop corruption charges against her.
Hundreds of police blocked the street in front of Bhutto's home Friday to keep her from leading a rally in Rawalpindi that had been expected to draw thousands.
She said Saturday she was still determined to go ahead with a 185 mile march Tuesday from the city of Lahore to Islamabad.
"To get Pakistan from the clutches of dictatorship, we are organizing a long march," Bhutto told around 100 journalists protesting the new media clampdown, which would impose jail time for those who criticize Musharraf or the army.
Bhutto urges masses to join forces
"I request ... all segments of the population to join us in the struggle for democracy. When the masses combine, the sound of their steps will suppress the sound of military boots."
Many critics say the main goal of Musharraf's emergency was to pre-empt a Supreme Court ruling on the legality of his victory in a presidential election last month. Under the constitution, public servants cannot run for office.
Qayyum, the attorney general, said the court — now purged of its more independent-minded justices — would swear in more judges in the next two or three days, bringing it up to the strength required to restart hearings in the case.
Musharraf says he will quit his post as army chief and rule as a civilian once the court has confirmed his re-election, but set no date for that step.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.