(photo credit: AP)
The party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto vowed Wednesday to hold a rally near the Pakistani capital to protest emergency rule, despite threats from officials to crush it by force.
"We denounce the government ban, and want to make it clear that our supporters and leaders will reach Rawalpindi for the rally," Babar Awan, a senior member of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, told The Associated Press.
The mayor of Rawalpindi, a garrison city just south of Islamabad, said police would be out in force to prevent anyone reaching the park where Bhutto hoped to address supporters on Friday.
"We will ensure that they don't violate the ban on rallies, and if they do it, the government will take action according to the law," mayor Javed Akhlas told AP.
Akhlas said there was a "strong threat" of another suicide attack against Bhutto, who escaped a blast during her homecoming procession in Karachi on Oct. 18 that killed more than 140 people.
A suicide bomber blew himself up a few hundred meters from President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's office in Rawalpindi on Oct. 30, killing seven people.
"We cannot take the risk of allowing any political party to hold big rallies," Akhlas said.
A clash with Bhutto's supporters - or another bloody attack aimed at her - could dramatically escalate the political crisis triggered when Musharraf declared a state of emergency on Saturday.
With the encouragement of the United States, Musharraf had been holding talks with Bhutto widely expected to lead to a power-sharing arrangement after parliamentary elections slated for January.
That would have introduced more democracy to a nuclear-armed country racked by political uncertainty and rising Islamic militancy that has alarmed the West.
But with the constitution suspended, authorities have detained thousands of opposition activists, lawyers and human rights workers, put a stranglehold on the media and suggested the election could be delayed by up to a year.
Bhutto said Tuesday that Musharraf's resort to authoritarian measures was a "breach of trust" with her and that the talks were off.
However, she also suggested that they could resume if circumstances change.
"I think we should all come down as strongly as we can for the restoration of democracy. And if General Musharraf wants to find a way out, well the ball is in his court," she said.
Like Bhutto, Washington and other foreign donors to Pakistan, a key Western ally in combating al-Qaida and Taliban militants operating near the border with Afghanistan, are pressing loudly for the elections to be held on time.
They are also urging Musharraf to keep a promise to quit his post as army chief - the real source of his power.
"For elections to be credible, opposition political party leaders and their party workers must be released from jail or house arrest. The media must be free to report on events and share their opinions with the public," US Ambassador Anne Patterson said after meeting the head of the election commission on Tuesday.