As many as 500 people have been arrested across Pakistan in a crackdown launched after the declaration of a state of emergency, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said yesterday.
Aziz further said that parliament was entitled to delay elections for a year under emergency rule imposed by President Pervez Musharraf, but added that the government had not yet made a decision.
"There have been 400 to 500 preventative arrests in the country," Aziz told a news conference in Islamabad, giving the first confirmed figure since Musharraf announced the emergency on Saturday.
The arrested activists include Javed Hashmi, acting chief of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's party, leading rights activist Asma Jahangir and cricket legend-turned-politician Imran Khan.
On the subject of elections set for January, he told reporters: "There could be some timing difference on the election schedule but we have not decided yet."
"We are still deliberating. The parliament could give itself more time, up to a year, in terms of holding the next election," Aziz said.
"When we decide what the deliberations result in, we will certainly share it with you," he said.
The prime minister said the government was "committed to pursuing a parliamentary form of government" and added that he wanted the emergency to be over "without too much time being taken."
On Saturday, Musharraf accused the judiciary and Islamic militants of destabilizing the country and that he had acted to stop the nuclear-armed country from committing "suicide."
He appealed for understanding from the West.
The White House led global criticism of the emergency declaration, but Musharraf -- a key US ally in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban -- insisted he had no choice.
The US called emergency rule "very disappointing," but said there was no plan to suspend military aid to Pakistan.
Police and paramilitary soldiers yesterday set up barricades and unrolled coils of barbed wire to block access to the parliament, presidential residence and Supreme Court buildings.
The security forces fanned out nearby and set up posts near the state-run radio headquarters, TV stations and luxury hotels. Shops were open but traffic was thin and markets were quiet.
Pakistani media were incensed by the developments.
"General Musharraf's second coup," said a headline in Dawn, referring to his first power grab in 1999, while the Daily Times said: "It is martial law."
"We are heading for a very uncertain time because this coup will be challenged by political parties. This will also build strain between him and the military," political analyst Hasan Askari said.
Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who rushed home from Dubai on Saturday night, branded the emergency declaration an attempt to impose martial law, but did not rule out a proposed power-sharing deal.