LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan freed opposition leader Benazir Bhutto from house arrest early on Friday, hours after a caretaker prime minister was appointed in a first step towards a national election.
Jail officials left the residence in the eastern city of Lahore where Bhutto has been held to prevent her from leading a pro-democracy rally against President Pervez Musharraf’s emergency rule.
But dozens of police with batons and riot vests remained manning blockades on the road outside.
“The government has withdrawn Bhutto’s detention order, and from now, she is free to move wherever she likes,” Aftab Cheema, police chief of the eastern city of Lahore, told Reuters.
“Police will remain (outside) for her security, but there will be no restriction on her movement.”
The United States had hoped Musharraf and Bhutto would end up sharing power after an election but they have rounded on each other. Musharraf has pledged to hold the election by January 9.
Bhutto’s release comes ahead of a planned visit by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte who will push General Musharraf to end the emergency rule he imposed a fortnight ago in an apparent bid to hold on to the presidency, and to free thousands of detained opposition figures.
“If it is true, then that is positive. Not only does she need to have her house arrest lifted but so do others who are important participants in Pakistan’s political future,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
“Other steps need to be taken too, including the lifting of the state of emergency,” McCormack said.
Negroponte last week warned against cutting aid to an “indispensable” ally in the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban.
“The political process in Pakistan has been derailed. Our message is that 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 overnight in Africa.
Musharraf appointed Senate chairman Mohammadmian Soomro, a close ally, as caretaker prime minister to oversee the election.
“We totally reject it. This appointment, in fact, is part of General Musharraf’s scheme to perpetuate his rule,” said Mushahidullah Khan, vice president of exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s party.
Struggling to secure another term of office in the face of legal challenges, Musharraf suspended the constitution, fired judges regarded as hostile to his rule, rounded up thousands of opposition politicians and rights activists, and curbed the media.
The National Assembly — which critics say is a pro-Musharraf rubber stamp convened after what they say were rigged polls in 2002 — completed its term on Thursday.
Bhutto has said the possibility of a vote boycott would be discussed at an opposition meeting on November 21.
Small protests have flared across the country since the emergency was declared and, while police have used batons and tear gas, there had been no major violence.
Then on Thursday two boys were killed and four policemen wounded when police and unidentified gunmen battled in Karachi during protests by Bhutto activists, police said.
Musharraf has not said when he will restore the constitution nor when the state of emergency would be lifted. He insists emergency rule was necessary to ensure a free and fair vote.
Musharraf, in power since a 1999 coup, had been due to quit the army by November 15 but that was before the Supreme Court took up challenges to his October 6 re-election by legislators.
He now says he will quit as army chief and be sworn in as a civilian president as soon as the Supreme Court, where judges regarded as friendly to the government have been appointed, dismisses the challenges. The attorney general said the court was expected to validate the vote before the end of the month.
Additional reporting by Simon Gardner in Lahore, Augustine Anthony and Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad and Sue Pleming in Washington; editing by Robert Woodward