Pakistan announced plans to lift its state of emergency within one month and allowed opposition leader Benazir Bhutto to leave her villa following a day under house arrest, as the country sought yesterday to restore its battered image at home and abroad.
President General Pervez Musharraf insists he called the week-old emergency to help fight Islamic extremists who control swathes of territory near the Afghan border, but the main targets of his subsequent crackdown have been his most outspoken critics, including the increasingly independent courts and media.
Thousands of people have been arrested, TV news stations taken off the air and judges removed.
The government -- under mounting pressure from the US and other Western allies to follow through with promises to restore democracy -- has announced that parliamentary elections initially slated for January would be held no more than a month later.
Pakistani Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum said yesterday that the state of emergency would "end within one month."
He provided no further details and would not say when a formal announcement might come.
Security forces threw a cordon around Bhutto's villa in an upscale neighborhood of the capital on Friday and rounded up thousands of her supporters to prevent a planned demonstration against the crackdown. But she was allowed to leave her home 24 hours later, meeting first with party colleagues and then addressing a small journalists' protest.
But dozens of helmeted police blocked her white, bulletproof Land cruiser when she tried to visit Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the independent-minded chief justice who was removed from his post following Musharraf's state of emergency. She tried to convince them to let her pass, but turned back after they refused.
"Those holding guns are afraid of an unarmed girl," Bhutto's dozens of supporters chanted. They scuffled briefly with police, who pushed them pack with batons and shields.
Aides said she would meet later with foreign diplomats to discuss the political crisis.
The restrictions on Bhutto dimmed the prospect of her forming a US-friendly alliance with Musharraf against militants who have seized control of an ever-greater area of northwestern Pakistan.
Some US officials have expressed concern that the political crisis will actually distract Pakistan from that task and NATO said yesterday insurgents had killed six US troops in eastern Afghanistan.
But the Bush administration continues to describe Musharraf as an "indispensable" ally against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, suggesting it is unlikely to yield to calls from some lawmakers in Washington for cuts in its generous aid to Pakistan, much of it to the powerful military.