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Pakistani Police Arrest Protesters; US Blasts Military Rule

Security forces in Pakistan have fired tear gas and clubbed demonstrators who are objecting to President Pervez Musharraf's decision to suspend the constitution. The protests came as President Bush urged the Pakistani leader to hold elections and quit his military post. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has details from Washington.

Thousands of lawyers across Pakistan are protesting President Musharraf's decision to impose emergency rule.

The biggest clash between the protesters and police occurred in the eastern city of Lahore, where more than 1,000 attorneys rallied at the High Court.

Police used tear gas and then stormed the gathering, arresting and beating hundreds of people.

Asma Jehangir is an attorney and chairman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

"The police came and surrounded my house and told me that I could not leave the house and I realized that either they were going to arrest me or to take me away," said Asma Jehangir.

President Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, is also head of Pakistan's army. He suspended the constitution on Saturday ahead of a Supreme Court ruling on whether his recent re-election as president was legal.

Mr. Musharraf says he imposed emergency rule to curb growing attacks by extremists and because a series of recent judicial decisions have set known terrorists free and undermined his efforts to move the country toward democracy.

Since Saturday General Musharraf has ousted judges, silenced independent media and granted sweeping powers to crush dissent.

Critics called the move a last-ditch attempt by the president to stay in power.

So far, the president's most serious challenger, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has not been arrested.

She is urging Mr. Musharraf to lift emergency rule and hold elections.

"I would still prefer to see General Musharraf immediately restore the constitution and stick to the election schedule, but I am afraid that the situation is slipping out of everyone's hands and General Musharraf has not opted for a political solution," said Benazir Bhutto. "He has opted for suspending the constitution."

President Bush is also urging Mr. Musharraf to call elections and says the Pakistani president should relinquish his army post as soon as possible.

"Our hope now is that he hurry back to elections," said President Bush. "At the same time we want to continue working with him to fight these terrorists and extremists who have not only tried to kill him, but have used parts of his country from which to launch attacks into Afghanistan and / or are planning attacks on America."

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, says the United States must put more pressure on General Musharraf to lift emergency rule.

"I think you have to find some way to send a little stronger message that we do not like this," said O'Hanlon. "Maybe a mild cutback in aid, for example, but for the most part we know we do not have much choice. He is perhaps the only person right now who can go after al-Qaida. I think we have to keep pushing him to maybe find a transition strategy so even if the military stays in charge, it is not him forever. But for the most part we are stuck and democracy is what is losing out."

The United States is currently reviewing its financial aid to Pakistan. The U.S. has given Pakistan more than $10 billion since 2001, mostly to support the country's military operations against terrorists.