Pakistan's opposition called on President General Pervez Musharraf to lift a state of emergency, saying yesterday that upcoming parliamentary elections would be a sham unless the rights of citizens were fully restored. Several parties were mulling a boycott.
Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, meanwhile, prepared to launch a cross-country caravan to protest military rule. Police ramped up security for her, saying they had received intelligence that a suicide bomber was planning to attack her in the eastern city of Lahore.
Bhutto was targeted in an Oct. 18 suicide attack on her homecoming from exile to the southern city of Karachi, killing 145 people.
Musharraf said on Sunday he would stick to a January schedule for the polls, but set no time limit on emergency rule, which has resulted in the arrest of thousands of his critics, a ban on rallies and the blacking out of independent television networks.
The measures, he argued, were necessary to ensure "absolutely fair and transparent elections" and to step up the fight against Islamic militants threatening Pakistan.
Benazir Bhutto welcomed his Jan. 9 cutoff date for the vote but said yesterday that free and fair elections were not "foreseeable" under the emergency and with Musharraf still army chief.
Other opposition parties were more strident.
Raja Zafarul Haq, chairman of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's party, 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 said. "Within the next week there will be meetings and we will finally decide whether to go for elections or agitation."
In Lahore, about 200 police were guarding the house where Bhutto was staying, with snipers on surrounding rooftops, ahead of her protest caravan to Islamabad, due to begin today. The access road was blocked by steel barricades.
With an escort of dozens of police vehicles, she ventured out 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?" she said.
Bhutto also demanded Musharraf step down as army chief when his current term as president expires on Thursday -- a step he is promising to take once a reconstituted Supreme Court validates his recent victory in the country's recent controversial presidential election.