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US Envoy Voices Support for Musharraf, Urges End to Emergency Rule

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte has urged Pakistan's President to end emergency rule, free political prisoners and step down as army chief. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Islamabad that following talks with top government officials as well as Benazir Bhutto, Negroponte voiced support for General Pervez Musharraf and called for reconciliation talks among all parties.

John Negroponte's visit to Pakistan took place during an increasingly polarized standoff, with political opposition parties, lawyers and rights activists on one side, and President Musharraf's government on the other.

Before leaving Sunday, Negroponte met top government and military officials. He told a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad that he had called for the abolition of curbs on the media.

The U.S. diplomat said "I urged the government of Pakistan to stop such actions, to lift the state of emergency and release all political detainees. Emergency rule is not compatible with free, fair and credible elections."

In recent days President Musharraf has said emergency laws will help ensure fair elections expected in early January. Pakistani officials say he told Negroponte on Saturday that he would lift emergency rule when he thought the security situation had improved.

Many Pakistanis believe General Musharraf imposed the laws as an attempt to retain political power.

Negroponte said emergency rule has undermined the economic, political and education reforms that Pakistan's government had promoted in recent years.

But, he said Washington still supports President Musharraf, whom Negroponte called a strong voice against extremism. "We value our partnership with the government of Pakistan, under the leadership of President Musharraf."

Negroponte said the United States believes the best way to counter extremism is to nurture a moderate political center.

President Musharraf and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto are considered leaders of Pakistan's strongest moderate political parties and earlier this year held talks about a possible power-sharing deal.

But General Musharraf's imposition of emergency law on November 3 enraged opposition parties and apparently ended those negotiations. Ms. Bhutto has called for the president to resign and said she can no longer consider serving in a government with him.

Negroponte urged all parties to re-start negotiations. "If steps were taken by both sides to move back towards the kinds of reconciliation discussions that they had been having previously, we think that would be very positive and could improve the political environment."

Negroponte also addressed concerns that pro-Taliban militants are encroaching into settled areas of Pakistan and expanding their influence beyond the Afghan border region. He said he has "no doubt" about the commitment of Pakistan's military to deal with the situation.