Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf held secret talks with opposition leader and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, a government minister said. Media widely reported that the once-bitter rivals discussed a power-sharing deal.
Such an alliance could strengthen the increasingly embattled Musharraf by bringing the secular, liberal opposition into his government amid growing concern about a rise in Islamic militancy. Analysts said on Saturday that Pakistan's Western allies would welcome that.
But newspaper and television reports said the talks stalled over Bhutto's insistence that Musharraf, a key US ally in fighting terrorism, must quit his military post if he hopes to remain president.
Minister for Railways Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said that the president and Bhutto "held a successful meeting" in Abu Dhabi on Friday. He would not elaborate on the subject of the talks.
Bhutto, leader of the secular Pakistan People's Party, the largest opposition group, told Pakistani TV station KTN by phone from London that: "Whatever we have done and are doing it is for democracy and social and economic rights of the people of Pakistan."
But she repeatedly dodged the question when asked if she had met with Musharraf.
"Let's talk of something else," she said.
Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999 and pledged to quickly restore democracy. He is expected to seek re-election when his term expires in October, and he wants the current crop of politicians in federal and provincial assemblies -- who supported him five years ago -- to vote again.
The opposition says the 2002 elections of those representatives were fixed, and insists that only the lawmakers chosen in parliamentary elections due at the end of 2007 should have the right to elect the next head of state. Observers say the new crop of lawmakers may be less inclined to support Musharraf.
The opposition also says Musharraf must relinquish his post as army chief. But he has been unwilling to quit the army, the main source of his power, fueling disquiet about military rule.
Bhutto insisted on Saturday that Musharraf must quit the military.
"Our stand is that, and I stick to my stand, that we do not accept President Musharraf in uniform," she said.
Bhutto has also said Musharraf must promise to give up the power to fire the prime minister and dissolve parliament.
Protests against Musharraf began after Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry was suspended in October. The government said it received a string of complaints that the judge abused his office.
Critics accuse the government of removing an independent-minded judge ahead of legal challenges to Musharraf's continued rule.
Weakening Musharaff's hold on power is militant violence and a controversial security deal with tribal leaders on the Afghan border, meant to contain Taliban and al-Qaeda forces.