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Top US Diplomat to Meet With Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, beginning a critical political mission to Pakistan late Friday, held a telephone discussion with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Negroponte is in Islamabad to push for an end to the state of emergency declared by President Pervez Musharraf. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Negroponte, the highest level U.S. official to visit Pakistan since the November 3 emergency declaration, held the phone conversation with Ms. Bhutto only hours after her release from house arrest in Lahore.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the Deputy Secretary, who also met late Friday with Pakistani National Security Adviser Tariq Aziz, is in Pakistan to repeat U.S. calls for lifting the emergency decree which has plunged the country into political crisis.

He said Negroponte's early outreach to the former prime minister and opposition leader underlines the importance the U.S. attaches to a restoration of free political discourse inside Pakistan.

"It does send a very clear message that we intend to continue our contacts with members of Pakistan's political leadership and political civil society," said Mr. McCormack. "We think it's vitally important that there be a free exchange of information, that those channels of communication remain open. And more importantly, that they have open, free channels of communication with one another. "

The spokesman said Negroponte, who expected to see General Musharraf Saturday, would also push for setting a specific date for parliamentary elections (promised for January), an end to curbs on the media, and for the Pakistani president to quit his post as army chief if he continues in politics.

The United States has urged reconciliation and dialogue among political moderates in Pakistan including General Musharraf and Ms. Bhutto.

But McCormack sidestepped a question as to whether Negroponte would urge the two to revive the power-sharing deal they had discussed before the emergency declaration, saying that is for Pakistanis to decide.

In that regard, he also dismissed charges leveled by outgoing Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, among others, that Washington is trying to dictate how Pakistan should run its affairs.

"We have tried very hard to stay out of Pakistani domestic politics. I will say that we have expressed our views which we believe are consistent with our nation interests, and we have expressed our views in the vein of friendship and counsel to a good friend," added Mr. McCormack. "So if people consider that interference in Pakistani politics, I don't know there is much that I can do to try to combat those kinds of concerns."

Negroponte, the chief of U.S. national intelligence before assuming the number-two State Department job in January, has been the point man for contacts with Islamabad under the U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue. He last visited that country in September.

McCormack did not rule out meetings by Negroponte with other Pakistani opposition figures or other senior members of the country's military, and said he anticipated no impediments to his activities in Pakistan.