Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule yesterday and deployed troops across the capital in a bid to reassert his flagging authority against political rivals and Islamist militants.
State-run Pakistan Television said that Musharraf, who is also chief of army staff, had suspended the Constitution and declared an emergency. The move is expected to put off parliamentary elections due in January.
Witnesses said that paramilitary troops had been deployed at Pakistan Television and radio stations ahead of the announcement, which follows weeks of speculation that Musharraf might impose emergency rule or martial law.
Troops sealed off Constitution Avenue, the thoroughfare where the presidency building, the National Assembly and the Supreme Court are located, and surrounded the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court was reported to have rejected the declaration of emergency.
Television channels also said that Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, whose earlier dismissal in March marked the beginning of a slide in Musharraf's popularity, had been told that his services were "no longer required."
Chaudhry had been reinstated in July.
A leading Pakistani lawyer and opposition figure, Aitzaz Ahsan, said he had been detained.
"They have served me a detention order for 30 days," Ahsan, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, told reporters outside his home in the capital. "One man has taken entire nation hostage ... Time has come for General Musharraf to go."
Fellow lawyers shouted "Go, Musharraf, go" as Ahsan was taken away by police, waving a victory sign to his supporters.
Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, was awaiting a Supreme Court ruling on whether he was eligible to run for re-election last month while still army chief.
The court said on Friday that it would reconvene tomorrow and try to finish the case quickly, having earlier said that it would take a break until Nov. 12 -- just three days before Musharraf's term expires.
A senior security official said that Musharraf would seek approval for the move from the Cabinet later, after which there were expectations he would address the nation.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for opposition leader Benazir Bhutto said she would not return to Pakistan from Dubai.
"She can't go back to Pakistan now due to the state of emergency," Zubeir Bashir said. "If she goes back they would arrest her."
"We condemn Musharraf's decision to declare a state of emergency. We don't accept it," said Zubair, adding that Bhutto might hold a press conference in Dubai late yesterday or today.
"Army rule is bad. It stops everything and makes the country's progress zero," Zubair added.
Earlier, Bhutto's husband Asif Ali Zardari said she was already on a flight back to Pakistan from Dubai.
He described the president's move as "definitely not pleasant news."
"We're hoping to build institutions, not destroy them," he said.
Before the announcement on emergency rule, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told journalists traveling with her to Turkey that Washington opposed any authoritarian measures and wanted elections to go ahead.
"I think it would be quite obvious that the United States would not be supportive of extra-constitutional means," Rice said. "Pakistan needs to prepare for and hold free and fair elections."
Musharraf had said he would quit as army chief if he were given a second term, and that he had allowed Bhutto back into Pakistan to lead her party into the national elections.