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Bhutto released from house arrest

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was freed from house arrest late on Friday, hours after she was stopped from leaving her Islamabad home to lead a rally against the president’s imposition of emergency rule.

“The detention order has been withdrawn,” said Aamir Ali Ahmed, acting deputy commissioner of Islamabad.

A security official said police barricades around Bhutto’s home were being taken down. A spokeswoman for Bhutto’s party, Sherry Rehman, said she had no information about the lifting of the order.

Earlier in the day police prevented Bhutto from leaving her home and sealed off the capital and the nearby city of Rawalpindi to stop a rally against President Pervez Musharraf.

Bhutto, the politician most capable of galvanising mass protests against army chief Musharraf, had appealed to police to let her through their cordon.

“The government has been paralysed,” Bhutto shouted to supporters across a barbed-wire barricade.

“If he restores the constitution, takes off his uniform, gives up the office of the chief of army staff and announces an election by January 15, then it’s OK,” she said, vowing defiance if Musharraf did not comply.

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Police wielded batons and fired teargas to break up small protests in several parts of the country.

Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless 1999 coup, imposed emergency rule last Saturday citing a hostile judiciary and rising militancy in the nuclear-armed U.S. ally.

But on Thursday he said elections would be held by February 15, about a month later than they were due.

He also said he would quit as army chief and be sworn in as a civilian president once new judges appointed to the Supreme Court struck down challenges against his re-election.

Bhutto has been holding power-sharing talks with Musharraf for months and political analysts say that cooperation between them is still possible despite Bhutto’s defiance.

But it remains to be seen whether Musharraf can control events set in train by his shock decision to impose emergency rule and suspend the constitution.

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Under fire abroad from Western allies and under pressure at home from an angry Bhutto, he has become increasingly isolated, fuelling concern about instability.

“The concern I have is that the longer the internal problems continue, the more distracted the Pakistani army and security services will be in terms of the internal situation rather than focusing on the terrorist threat in the frontier area,” U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said.

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Musharraf has sacked most of the country’s judges, put senior officials including former chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry under house arrest, and ordered police to round up the majority of the opposition leadership and anyone else deemed troublesome.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said 2,500 people had been detained since the emergency was declared, though Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party say 5,000 of their activists have been picked up in the past couple of days.

Authorities had cited fear of a militant attack for the ban on Bhutto’s rally and her detention. A suicide bomb attack killed 139 people at a procession in Karachi to welcome Bhutto’s return to Pakistan on October 18 after eight years of self-imposed exile.

The government blamed Islamist militants angry at her backing of Musharraf’s alliance with the United States.

Bhutto was expected to meet foreign diplomats on Saturday. She has also planned a motorcade from Lahore to Islamabad beginning on November 13 as part of her democracy campaign.

The White House had earlier called for Bhutto and other political party members to be allowed freedom of movement and for an early end to the state of emergency. It urged all sides to refrain from violence.

“Free and fair elections require a lifting of the state of emergency,” said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council.

A suicide blast at the home of Political Affairs Minister Amir Muqam in the northwestern city of Peshawar killed three people on Friday, state-run Pakistan Television said. The minister was unhurt.

Additional reporting Augustine Anthony and Zeeshan Haider