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Analysts Say Decision to Block Bhutto Could Backfire


South Asia analysts say the Pakistani government's decision to block former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto from leading a rally against President Pervez Musharraf and his decision to declare emergency rule could backfire. The analysts say the move is likely to galvanize public opinion, and could lead to more unrest and violence. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports from Washington.

It took thousands of police, cement barricades and barbed wire to keep Ms. Bhutto at her home in Islamabad and stop her from leading a protest rally in nearby Rawalpindi.

"To stop one million people they have to paralyze the whole government of Pakistan in the northern part of the country. How can they do this day after day? They can not," Ms. Bhutto said.

The United States supported Ms. Bhutto's return to Pakistan hoping an alliance between the former prime minister and General Musharraf could lead the country back on the path to democracy.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe says both supporters and opponents of the government should refrain from violence and resume negotiations. "So we are urging all sides to engage in a dialog, to work through this peacefully and to get to free and fair elections, which is obviously in the best interest of the people of Pakistan," he said.

A Pakistani government spokesman, Tariq Azim Khan, says by calling for mass demonstrations Ms. Bhutto is hurting chances there will be a successful compromise agreement with President Musharraf. "Unfortunately this process of reconciliation with our political leadership that we want to go ahead is put at risk by her choosing this path of confrontation," he said.

Most of the thousands of people arrested since the emergency declaration have been moderates, including lawyers and activists from secular opposition parties, such as Ms. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party.

The mass detentions are fueling popular discontent and suspicions that General Musharraf, who initially seized control of the country in a 1999 coup, suspended the constitution to maintain his own grip on power.

Hassan Abbas is a former security official with the Pakistani government who is now a research fellow with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Abbas says the government's decision to block Ms. Bhutto from rallying her party is likely to electrify her supporters and strengthen her opposition to General Musharraf.

"If Benazir Bhutto has been forced to take a strong position against Musharraf that shows the kind of public perception, that shows the kind of public reaction, that she as a democratic leader realizes that it is beneficial for her to go out and defy. She has enough confidence, it appears at this moment, that people will come out on the streets. I think in the coming weeks we will see more unrest. We will see more violence," he said.

Since declaring the state of emergency, the Pakistani government has kept the country's independent television news stations off the air.

Asma Jahangir, the head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, who is currently under house arrest in Lahore, says most Pakistanis are feeling a deep sense of anxiety about the situation.

"Well at the moment there is complete insecurity among the people, they do not know which way the whole situation is going to go and what turn it is going to take. We have no information because all television channels have been turned off except the state run television. We get the newspapers in the morning, but they are also heavily censored," she said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is expressing concern about the unrest in Pakistan.

He says the longer the country's internal problems continue, the more distracted the Pakistani army and security services will be from their efforts to confront terrorist threats in the area near the border with Afghanistan.

The United States considers General Musharraf a key ally in the war on terror and has given Pakistan nearly 10-billion dollars in aid since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

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