ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Pakistani police backed by armored vehicles detained opposition leader Benazir Bhutto at her Islamabad residence today and reportedly rounded up 5,000 of her supporters to block a planned mass protest against emergency rule, officials said.
Authorities were adamant the rally Bhutto planned in nearby Rawalpindi would not go ahead under the government's emergency powers President Gen. Pervez Musharraf declared last weekend, mass gatherings are banned. Mayor Javed Akhlas also said there was a "credible report" of six or seven suicide bombers in the city.
"We condemn this government move. It shows that the government is scared of Benazir Bhutto's popularity and it does not want her to be among masses," said Sen. Babar Awan, Bhutto's lawyer.
There was confusion among her aides about whether she would attempt to go to the venue in Rawalpindi, which had been sealed off by riot police backed by armored vehicles. The headquarters of Pakistan's army Musharraf's residence are also located in the city.
Nazir Dhoki, a spokesman for Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party said the former prime minister still planned to leave on schedule for Rawalpindi, but Sen. Enver Baig said party leaders were meeting to discuss whether the rally would go ahead or not.
Pakistan's military leader showed no signs of letting up on his political foes despite his announcement Thursday, following pressure from the U.S. and other Western allies, that elections would go ahead by mid-February, a month later than originally planned.
Bhutto's party claimed Friday that authorities had arrested 5,000 of its supporters in the last three days across the eastern province of Punjab, where Rawalpindi is located.
"It is a massive crackdown on our party," said Raja Javed Ashraf, a lawmaker from the party.
The government offered no immediate public comment. But the security official said 1,000 Bhutto supporters had been detained.
Bhutto was not formally under house arrest, Information Minister Tariq Azim said. But "we will not allow any leader to carry out any rally," he told The Associated Press.
Azim said he didn't know what would happen if Bhutto tried to leave her house.
Musharraf has been under pressure to quickly hold elections and step down as the country's army chief since he suspended the constitution and took other emergency measures, saying they were needed to put an end to political instability and to fight Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants.
Thousands of lawyers and opposition parties activists have been rounded up countrywide, and police using batons and tear gas have squashed attempts by lawyers to protest on the streets.
President Bush, who counts the Pakistani leader as a key ally in the war on terror, telephoned Musharraf to urge him to restore democracy, and the White House was quick to hail Thursday's pledge to hold elections by mid-February.
Some Pakistani officials earlier said elections could be delayed by up to a year.
But Bhutto on Thursday dismissed the announcement and demanded Musharraf give up his second post as army chief within a week. She said Friday's protest would go ahead despite warnings it could be targeted by suicide bombers.
"We want an election date, we want a retirement date" for Musharraf to quit his powerful military post, Bhutto told reporters. "This is a vague statement. We want the uniform off by Nov. 15."
Bhutto had been in talks with Musharraf on a post-election political alliance. But she pulled back after the emergency was imposed, and her decision to join in anti-government protests was another blow for Musharraf, who has seen his popularity slide this year amid growing resentment of military rule and increasing violence by Islamic militants.
Critics argue that Musharraf who seized power in a 1999 coup declared the emergency and ousted independent-minded judges to maintain his own grip on power. The moves came days before the Supreme Court was expected to rule on whether his recent re-election as president was legal.
Musharraf, who appeared Thursday on state-run Pakistan TV dressed in a business suit rather than his army fatigues, said the polls "must be held before Feb. 15, 2008," even though the schedule would be tight.
Officials must coordinate both national and provincial ballots, which are to be held at the same time.
He reaffirmed he would be sworn in for a new five-year presidential term and resign as military chief once the Supreme Court now purged of his sharpest critics validates his re-election.
Musharraf could lift emergency measures soon after that happens, observers say.
Bhutto returned to the country from eight years in exile to contest the parliamentary polls. Her homecoming procession in Karachi was shattered by suicide bombers, leaving more than 145 people dead. She escaped injury. Islamic militants were widely blamed.
Rawalpindi, hit by a series of suicide attacks targeting the military, had hundreds of riot police on the streets Friday, moving through the city while other security personnel patrolled on motorcycles, horseback and in armored vehicles.
Streets normally jammed with people stood empty, shops were closed and the road leading from Islamabad to Rawalpindi had been blocked by two tractor trailers and a metal gate. Friday is also a public holiday in Pakistan.
"Since the government has not given permission for it due to security reasons, we will not allow any one to gather here for the rally," the city's police chief, Saud Aziz, told The Associated Press.
He added police had "made elaborate arrangements to maintain law and order."
Apart from the Bhutto supporters, police were also on the lookout for potential suicide bombers, who Aziz warned Thursday were preparing another strike. He called the situation "very serious."