(photo credit: AP [file])
The government lifted the house arrest of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, police said Friday, hours before the arrival in Pakistan of a senior US official expected to urge the country's military leader to end emergency rule.
President Gen. Pervez Musharraf meanwhile pressed ahead with plans for elections, despite the threat of an opposition boycott, by swearing in a caretaker administration.
Police said the detention order against Bhutto was withdrawn overnight.
"The house is no longer a sub-jail but security will remain for her own protection. She's free to move and anyone will be able to go to the house," Zahid Abbas, a senior police official, told an Associated Press reporter near the barricaded house where Bhutto has been confined for three days.
However, trucks and tractors were still parked across the road leading to the house in the eastern city of Lahore and police would not let reporters cross the cordon.
Bhutto, a two-time former prime minister who returned from exile last month to launch a political comeback, was detained Tuesday to prevent her from leading a protest against Musharraf's Nov. 3 declaration of a state of emergency.
She has the highest profile among the thousands of political activists who have been detained in a government crackdown on dissent that sparked an outcry at home and abroad.
Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, insists he is still moving toward a restoration of democracy and civilian rule that Western governments believe could help stabilize the nuclear-armed country as it battles rising Islamic extremism.
At a ceremony in the capital, Islamabad, a somber-faced Musharraf said the outgoing Cabinet should be proud of having helped turn around the economy and move Pakistan back toward democracy.
"I take pride in the fact that, being a man in uniform, I have actually introduced the essence of democracy in Pakistan, whether anyone believes it or not," the general said after installing the caretaker ministers at the presidential palace.
The interim government, headed by Musharraf loyalist and former Senate chairman Mohammedmian Soomro, is charged with guiding Pakistan through parliamentary elections due by Jan. 9.
Musharraf insists he declared the emergency to prevent judicial interference and the rising threat from militants linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida from derailing the vote.
But Musharraf's emergency faces stiff criticism from countries including the United States, his key international backer, that the ballot cannot be fair unless restrictions on the opposition and the media are ended.
US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte was expected to arrive in Pakistan later Friday for talks on the deepening political crisis.
It was unclear whether he would meet with Bhutto.
The US State Department said he expected to meet "with whomever he wants to see," including Musharraf and opposition politicians.
US President George W. Bush "wants the state of emergency to be lifted. And it is up to President Musharraf. He has the responsibility to help restore democracy to the country," White House press secretary Dana Perino said.
Bhutto called Thursday on opposition parties, who deride Musharraf as a dictator trying to shore up his own fading power, to form a national unity government to replace him and organize the elections.
Her proposal, made in a telephone interview with AP, was quickly accepted by her archrival Nawaz Sharif, though the exiled former leader said the priority was to get Supreme Court judges ousted by Musharraf reinstated.
The general has long managed to keep the opposition divided and has refused to quit, telling AP on Wednesday he expects to relinquish his role as army chief by the end of November but stay on as president.
He suggested emergency rule would remain in place during the elections and blamed Bhutto for the chill in their relations that has dashed Western hopes that the two pro-Western secularists could join forces.
Bhutto said the United States "worry about what would happen if Musharraf left and there would be a vacuum. So that is a concern, and a valid concern," she said.
In Washington, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen said there is no sign that Pakistan's political unrest has undermined the security of its nuclear weapons arsenal.
Deepening the political crisis Thursday, police said unidentified gunmen opened "indiscriminate gunfire" in Karachi, killing an adult protester and two boys aged 11 and 12. They were the first reported deaths in unrest during the emergency.
Supporters of Bhutto had clashed with police in the same violence-ridden neighborhood since morning. The protesters, angry at Bhutto's house arrest, traded fire with police who also used tear gas to try to disperse them. Police and hospital officials said eight protesters and one policeman suffered gunshot wounds.
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