ISLAMABAD, Pakistan &
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto will not be allowed to hold a protest procession across Pakistan because it will violate a ban on political rallies under the state of emergency, a government spokesman said today.
Bhutto and other opposition members have threatened to boycott upcoming parliametnary elections unless the restrictions imposed by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf come to and end and he resigns as army chief. Musharraf said the vote would take place in mid-January, but critics say with the state of emergency, elections will be neither free nor fair.
Bhutto was due to depart from the eastern city of Lahore on Tuesday morning for the capital, Islamabad. The journey was expected to take about three days, and her party said thousands of supporters were expected to join her en route.
"All processions, rallies, political gatherings at present are outlawed," Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim told The Associated Press. "So if she breaks the law then obviously she will not be allowed to do it."
The caravan was meant to pressure Musharraf to end the state of emergency he imposed on Nov. — that suspended the constitution.
Azim declined to give details about what steps authorities might take against Bhutto. He said that law enforcers would "take the necessary action as it happens."
Earlier Tuesday, police ramped up security for Bhutto, saying they had received intelligence that a suicide bomber was planning to attack her in Lahore.
Bhutto was targeted in an Oct. 18 suicide attack on her homecoming procession from exile to the southern city of Karachi, killing 145 other people.
She was kept under house arrest in Islamabad last Friday to prevent her from addressing a rally in the nearby garrison city of Rawalpindi, where authorities also warned they had intelligence that suicide bombers were loose in the area.
Hundreds of police have been deployed in the streets around the Lahore house where Bhutto is currently staying, and sharpshooters were on surrounding rooftops. The road leading to the house is barricaded.
Any move to block the former prime minister would escalate political tensions and cast fresh doubt on a possible alliance between Musharraf and Bhutto, which Pakistan's Western allies hope could help combat religious extremism after the January parliamentary elections.
Musharraf has set no time limit on emergency rule, which has resulted in the arrests of thousands of his critics, a ban on rallies and the blacking out of independent TV networks.
The measures, he said Sunday, were necessary to ensure "absolutely fair and transparent elections" and to step up the fight against Islamic militants threatening Pakistan.
Today, Bhutto welcomed Musharraf's commitment to holding elections on time, but joined other opposition leaders in questioning whether free and fair elections would be possible under emergency rule. She likened it to being tied and blindfolded and being asked to run.
"In the prevailing circumstances you can't say the elections will be free and fair," she told reporters.
"In the given circumstances, boycotting elections could be an option," she said. "We will consult the other political parties."
With an escort of dozens of police vehicles, she ventured out around Lahore to offer prayers at the grave of Pakistan's national poet, Allama Iqbal, and declared to reporters that her caravan was part of her campaign "to save Pakistan."
"I know it is dangerous but what alternative is there when the country is in danger? We welcome the announcement of the election schedule but we think it is too little. People want free and fair elections," she said.
Bhutto also demanded Musharraf step down as army chief when his current term as president expires Nov. 15 &
a step he is promising to take once a reconstituted Supreme Court validates his recent victory in a controversial presidential election.
Farzana Raja, a spokesman for Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, vowed its supporters would fight any attempt by authorities to block her "freedom march."
"If police try to stop us, in every town and district of Punjab, there will be a battlefield between PPP activists and police," he said.
Deputy Information Minister Azim said the ban on rallies was a result of the Karachi bombing that targeted Bhutto. "Do we want to take a chance and let a few more hundred people die?" he asked.
He said emergency rule would provide a more secure environment for the vote and had happened three times before in Pakistan's 60-year history.
Raja Zafarul Haq, chairman of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party, resisted the idea. He demanded restoration of the constitution, which was suspended under the emergency, reinstatement of top judges purged by Musharraf and the release of detainees &
as well as Sharif's return from exile.
"Under the current circumstances it is very difficult to expect there would be fair elections in the country," he told Associated Press Television News. "Within the next week there will be meetings and we will finally decide whether to go for elections or agitation."
The United States and other Western allies have urged Musharraf to hold the crucial parliamentary polls on schedule, and said they were pleased at news they would not be delayed as earlier feared, but were still calling for the emergency to be lifted.
Pakistan bars planned protest by Bhutto
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan &