ISLAMABAD - President Pervez Musharraf yesterday said he could not give a date for the end of emergency rule, though he announced a timetable for general elections by early January.
Musharraf, speaking at a press conference, said emergency powers would reinforce the fight against Islamist militants threatening Pakistan's stability and help ensure security for the elections. He did not say when the constitution he suspended a week ago would be restored.
Opposition leader Benazir Bhutto left Islamabad for the eastern city of Lahore, where she plans to begin a mass protest unless Musharraf ends emergency rule and reinstates the constitution.
US President George Bush, who values Musharraf as an ally in the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban, also expects Musharraf to quit the army, become a civilian leader and hold elections.
Pakistanis are wondering what their military leader will do next, though there have not been huge street protests.
Musharraf - who assumed power in a bloodless coup in 1999 - has already sacked most judges, locked up lawyers and rounded up most of the political opposition and rights activists. He has justified his draconian steps by saying the judiciary was hampering the battle against militants and extremism.
Before Musharraf declared emergency rule a week ago, setting off a storm of criticism, elections had been expected by mid-January, two months after the scheduled dissolution of the national and provincial assemblies.
Faced with calls to clarify his intentions, Musharraf said elections would be held by February 15, and everything would fall into place once new supreme court judges had struck down challenges against his re-election last month.
Diplomats say Musharraf's main objective in imposing the emergency was to stop the court from ruling his re-election invalid, upholding rivals' protests that he was ineligible to contest while still army chief.
Musharraf says he will quit as army chief and be sworn in as a civilian president once the legal obstacles have been overcome.
Bush, speaking at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at his Texas ranch at the weekend, said he took the Pakistani leader at his word.
"He knows my position," Bush said. "He has declared that he'll take off his uniform and there will be elections, which are positive steps.
"We also believe the suspension of the emergency decree would make it easier for democracy to flourish," Bush added.
The US is worried the turmoil will hamper its ally's efforts against terrorism.
Bhutto, who Musharraf had been looking to as a potential ally after elections, was released from house arrest and has kept up a barrage of criticism of the general's retreat into authoritarianism. - Reuters