Washington's No. 2 diplomat had an all-important sitdown with Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf yesterday after talking by telephone overnight with one of the military ruler's chief rivals, hoping that face-to-face diplomacy would convince the general to move back toward democracy.
US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte's trip was seen as a last best chance to avoid political turmoil in Pakistan, which has seen its Supreme Court purged and thousands of protesters detained since Musharraf declared emergency rule on Nov. 3.
Joining Musharraf and Negroponte in the meeting, which lasted more than two hours, was Pakistan's deputy army commander, General Ashfaq Kayani, said an official in the president's office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Kayani is widely expected to take over the powerful role of military chief in the coming weeks when Musharraf sheds his uniform and starts his second term as president.
The official said Musharraf told Negroponte that the emergency was needed to hold peaceful elections. US officials were not immediately available to comment on the meeting.
Negroponte phoned opposition leader Benazir Bhutto overnight, the US State Department said, in the highest-level US contact with the Pakistani opposition leader since the emergency began.
The conversation came just hours after Bhutto was released from house arrest, one of a number of face-saving measures the government took ahead of the senior American diplomat's arrival. A prominent human rights activist was also released, and several opposition TV news stations were allowed back on the air.
But there were also some ominous signs, with the broadcasts of two major independent television news stations -- GEO and ARY, both of which transmit from nearby Dubai -- being cut.
Both stations said Dubai took action in response to pressure from Musharraf.
GEO news broadcast a continuous video of a thunderstorm at sea, with its logo floating on the choppy waves.
"The pressure was so intense from General Musharraf," prompting the state-owned Dubai Media City to order the signal cut at midnight on Friday, said Shahid Massood, GEO Group executive director, from Dubai.
Bhutto and Musharraf had been negotiating a power-sharing arrangement, but talks collapsed as the general moved against the opposition following his decision to suspend the Constitution.
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