updated 4/16/2005 3:03:21 AM ET 2005-04-16T07:03:21

The husband of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was spirited away by police to his home after returning from a trip overseas to prevent him from holding a rally in this eastern Pakistan city on Saturday.

Between 100 and 150 opposition activists who had managed to evade a heavy police blockade of Lahore airport to greet Asif Ali Zardari were arrested after clashing with police at the airport.

“Down with Musharraf! Long live Bhutto! Long live democracy!” the activists shouted, referring to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, before being taken away in police vans.

In recent days, party officials say thousands of activists from Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party have been rounded up, mostly in eastern Punjab and southern Sindh provinces, to prevent them from rallying.

Boosting party's profile
The planned rally Saturday was a bid to boost the political profile of Bhutto’s party and of Zardari, who was freed on bail in December after eight years in jail on corruption charges. The party has been marginalized during the five-year rule of Musharraf. Zardari had traveled to the United Arab Emirates to reunite with Bhutto, who lives there in self-imposed exile to avoid arrest on graft charges.

The Pakistani authorities’ crackdown will raise fresh questions about the military leader’s commitment to democracy and tolerance of political opponents.

Late Friday, top PPP leaders were arrested as they held a meeting at a house in Lahore, police and a party official said.

Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said the party officials and activists would soon be freed and denied that Zardari had been arrested.

“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.”

PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar told AP that although police has not arrested Zardari, other party leaders who arrived with him from Dubai had been taken into custody.

“I condemn the arrest of my supporters and demand their release,” Zardari was quoted as telling reporters inside his house in Lahore by the private ARY television channel. All roads to the house were barricaded by police.

“By not allowing me to hold a peaceful rally, the government has showed that there is no democracy. We have a fascist government here and our struggle for restoration of real democracy will continue,” he said.

At least 200 other PPP supporters who started chanting slogans and waving party flags on the road from the airport to the house were beaten by police and taken away in police vans.

ARY television reported that police at the airport manhandled journalists who traveled with Zardari from Dubai, snatching away their cameras.

In opposition
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 he has failed to resign as army chief as promised.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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