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U.S. envoy brings Musharraf sharp warning

Pakistan’s military ruler faced intense U.S. pressure Saturday to end emergency rule and restore democracy, with Washington’s No. 2 diplomat personally delivering what many here see as a sharp warning from a once staunch ally.
/ Source: news services

Pakistan’s military ruler faced intense U.S. pressure Saturday to end emergency rule and restore democracy, with Washington’s No. 2 diplomat personally delivering what many here see as a sharp warning from a once staunch ally.

U.S. envoy John Negroponte said on Sunday he had urged Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to end emergency rule, warning it was "not compatible" with free and fair elections due by early January.

The U.S. deputy secretary of state met Musharraf on Saturday, the first high-level meeting of a U.S. official with Washington's crucial ally since he imposed emergency rule on Nov. 3.

Musharraf says the two-week long emergency — which has seen opponents jailed, judges purged and independent TV stations muffled — is needed to hold a peaceful vote in the country beset by an increasingly potent Islamic insurgency.

Negroponte’s trip was seen as a last best chance to persuade him and avoid political turmoil in Pakistan, a key front in the war on terror.

Negroponte met for more than two hours with Musharraf and Pakistan’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 in the coming weeks.

The official said Musharraf told Negroponte the emergency was needed to hold a successful vote.

He wouldn’t say what Negroponte had told Musharraf, and U.S. officials weren’t talking. But 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.

Talks with Bhutto
He arrived in Pakistan a few hours later and phoned former prime minister Benazir 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. 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 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, Shahid Massood, Geo Group executive director, said 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.

Musharraf faces pressure over militants
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 suffering some casualties.