LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Held under house arrest behind barbed wire, Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto called on Tuesday for military leader Pervez Musharraf to quit as president, isolating him in the run-up to a general election.
Britain stepped up international pressure on Musharraf, who imposed emergency rule on November 3 in a move seen aimed at helping him cling to power, backing a 10-day Commonwealth ultimatum for him to end the emergency and quit as army chief.
Bhutto has long called for Musharraf to step down as army chief and become a civilian president but it was the first time she had called for him to quit as president altogether -- a move that could sound the death knell for U.S. hopes that the pair would end up sharing power.
She also said she would not serve as prime minister under him, and that her party might boycott the general election Musharraf has promised to hold by January 9.
“It is time for him to go. He must quit as president,” Bhutto, who spent months trying to negotiate a power-sharing deal with Musharraf, told Reuters by telephone as police bundled clusters of her protesting supporters into vans.
Bhutto was put under house arrest for a week in the city of Lahore, and a motorcade to Islamabad that she planned to lead to protest against emergency rule was stifled as 20,000 police sealed the area. Her party said 1,500 activists had been held.
Musharraf set off a storm of criticism when he imposed the emergency, suspended the constitution, sacked judges, locked up lawyers, rounded up thousands of activists and curbed the media.
The crisis has raised fears about stability in the nuclear-armed U.S. ally, and concern about its ability to focus on battling growing Islamist militancy.
Unidentified gunmen opened fire on two police stations in Karachi while Bhutto’s supporters were protesting against her detention but no one was hurt. In Peshawar, police used teargas and batons to disperse protesters.
Musharraf told the New York Times that Bhutto was being confined because she had accused the chief minister of Punjab province, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, of plotting against her, and to prevent an incident that she could then blame on the government.
Pakistani shares ended slightly down in thin trade as nervous investors waited on the sidelines, dealers said.
Bhutto said Musharraf appeared “out of his depth” and had “lost all credibility”. “I will not serve as prime minister as long as Musharraf is president,” she said.
“Negotiations between us have broken down over the massive use of police force ... There’s no question now of getting this back on track because anyone who is associated with General Musharraf gets contaminated.”
A spokesman for Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup and whom the U.S. has backed as a valuable ally in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban, declined to comment.
The general has seen his popularity slide since he tried to sack the chief justice in March, sparking protests by outraged lawyers who also took their campaign on the road with processions to Lahore and other towns across the country.
Bhutto was dogged by accusations of corruption during her two terms as prime minister, but her party is Pakistan’s biggest and has the capacity to mobilize huge crowds.
Musharraf has come under growing pressure from Western allies to set Pakistan back on a path to democracy. He has declined to say when the constitution will be restored, and said the emergency will ensure a fair vote.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. President George W. Bush both urged Musharraf on Monday to lift the emergency.
The Commonwealth said it would suspend Pakistan unless he ended emergency rule and quit the army by November 22, a call endorsed by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
Pakistan was expelled by the Commonwealth after Musharraf’s coup, but let back in 2004. Its Foreign Ministry said the ultimatum reflected ignorance of the realities and challenges facing the state.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who last week warned against cutting aid to an “indispensable” security ally, is due in Pakistan later this week.
Musharraf has justified the emergency by saying a meddling judiciary was hampering the battle against militants. Diplomats say he wanted to stop the Supreme Court from declaring invalid his election by loyalist legislators on October 6.
Musharraf has said he will step down as army chief and become a civilian president as soon as the court, where new judges seen as friendly to the government have been appointed, rules on challenges to his election.
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider in Lahore, Imtiaz Shah in Karachi and Kate Kelland in London; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Kevin Liffey
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