Asia Crisis

Confrontation looms over Bhutto's Pakistan protest

(Adds think-tank comment, Commonwealth meeting, stocks)

LAHORE, Pakistan, Nov 12 (Reuters) - Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto will not be allowed to hold a motorcade procession planned for Tuesday from the city of Lahore to protest against emergency rule, a government official said.

Two-time prime minister Bhutto had earlier on Monday urged Pakistanis of all shades to join the motorcade protest against President Pervez Musharraf's emergency rule and vowed it would go ahead even if police tried to block her.

As darkness fell, hundreds of extra police moved in around the Lahore home of a party official where Bhutto was staying, setting up barricades on streets saying they were for her security. Party officials were not stopped coming and going.

Musharraf set off a storm of criticism when he imposed emergency rule on Nov. 3. He suspended the constitution, sacked most judges, locked up lawyers, rounded up thousands of opposition and rights activists and curbed the media.

The crisis in the nuclear-armed country has raised fears about its stability and its focus on battling Islamist militants. Musharraf has come under pressure from Western allies and political rivals to set Pakistan back on the path to democracy.

Bhutto plans to lead a 3-4 day, 270 km (170 mile) "long march" from Lahore to the capital Islamabad to demand Musharraf quit as army chief, end emergency rule, reinstate the constitution and free thousands of detained lawyers and opponents -- including many from her party.

But a government official said it would not be allowed, setting the scene for confrontation early on Tuesday when thousands of supporters are expected to converge on the neighbourhood to begin the procession.

"Rallies and protests are banned, they are not allowed," Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan told Reuters when asked about the protest.

"Whoever breaks the law will be taken to task," he said.

Police have said Bhutto could be the target of a suicide assassination bid, like the one that killed 139 people at a rally last month welcoming her back from eight years in self-exile.


Earlier, Bhutto said she was aware of the danger but had no choice.

"How can we save our country?" she said during a visit to the tomb of renowned 19th century poet Mohammad Iqbal during an impromptu foray into Lahore in her bullet-proof 4x4 vehicle.

"We appeal to all people, including from other parties and minorities, women and children, to take part in this long march."

Bhutto, who has for months been in power-sharing talks with Musharraf, reiterated there would be no negotiations while an emergency was in place and the constitution was suspended.

Musharraf justified the emergency by saying the judiciary was hampering the battle against militants and interfering with governance.

Diplomats say his main objective was to stop the Supreme Court from ruling invalid his Oct. 6 re-election by legislative assemblies dominated by his supporters.

Musharraf said on Sunday a general election would be held by Jan. 9 but declined to say when the emergency would be lifted and the constitution restored.

He also said he would step down as army chief and be sworn in as a civilian president as soon as the Supreme Court, where new judges seen as friendly to the government have been appointed, ruled on challenges to his election.

Bhutto, who was dogged by accusations of corruption when prime minister, welcomed Musharraf's announcement on the polls but said he had not gone far enough in meeting her demands.

The United States welcomed Musharraf's announcement on polls but called for an end to emergency rule. The International Crisis Group think-tank said the West should impose graduated sanctions to force Musharraf towards democracy.

Musharraf is likely to face more pressure to end the emergency from the 53-nation Commonwealth, meeting in London on Monday to discuss Pakistan.

Pakistani stocks, hurt by the emergency, ended nearly 2 percent higher on the election announcement, dealers said. (Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider in ISLAMABAD; Editing by Robert Birsel and Tim Pearce)