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Pakistani Police Prevent Bhutto-led Protest Rally


Pakistani forces have stopped former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto from leaving her home to lead a demonstration against the country's emergency laws. VOA's Barry Newhouse was at Ms. Bhutto's Islamabad residence, where she spoke to reporters from behind coils of barbed wire.

Ms. Bhutto had hoped to speak before hundreds of thousands of supporters at a rally in Rawalpindi Friday, but instead addressed journalists and several hundred riot police outside her Islamabad residence.

She said the government had made strenuous efforts to prevent the protest, arresting 5,000 of her supporters, sealing off roads to Rawalpindi and dispatching thousands of troops to stop her from leaving her home.

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

Throughout the day, police arrested dozens of Ms. Bhutto's supporters outside her home but allowed senior leaders of her party to move freely. Ms. Bhutto denied she had been placed under house arrest, but the police barred her from leaving her neighborhood.

Ms. Bhutto says that President Pervez Musharraf's announcement of elections by February 15 was merely a ploy to quiet dissent. She said there is growing opposition to Mr. Musharraf.

"And I think the regime is trying to break this momentum by making vague promises that will give hope," she said.

She says unless General Musharraf agrees to step down as army chief, reinstate the constitution, and hold elections on schedule in January, she will not negotiate with him. "The regime has a choice - either paralysis or to stop putting obstacles in our path," said Ms. Bhutto.

The former prime minister says she still plans to lead a protest march early next week from Lahore to Islamabad. But following the security crackdown Friday on the planned Rawalpindi protest, it is unclear if Ms. Bhutto's party can carry out that plan.

Mr. Musharraf imposed emergency rule last Saturday. The government has detained more than two thousand opposition figures and critics, and has imposed strict limits on the news media.

The president has said the emergency rule is needed to combat growing violence by Islamic militants. However, witnesses and opposition leaders say most of those detained were moderate members of the community, including judges, lawyers and human rights activists.

World leaders, including President Bush, have called on Mr. Musharraf to end emergency rule, retire from the military and hold elections as originally scheduled in January.

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