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US Envoy to Press Musharraf

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STEPHEN GRAHAM | November 16, 2007 11:48 PM EST | AP

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — President Gen. Pervez Musharraf faces a stern warning from a top American diplomat on Saturday: end emergency rule or wreck landmark elections and risk undermining vital U.S. support.

Musharraf made concessions ahead of Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte's arrival Friday, allowing independent TV news back on the air and freeing opposition leaders and a respected U.N. rights expert.

But he also pushed ahead with plans for parliamentary elections in January, swearing in a caretaker government and defending his record since seizing power in a 1999 coup.

"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," a solemn-looking Musharraf said after a low-key ceremony at the presidential palace.

Negroponte touched down hours later and spoke by phone with opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, the highest-level U.S. contact with the former prime minister since Musharraf imposed a state of emergency Nov. 3.

"He wanted to hear from her how she viewed the political situation in Pakistan," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

He said Negroponte's call to Bhutto "sends a very clear message that we intend to talk to and continue our contacts with members of Pakistan's political leadership and political civil society."

U.S. contacts with Bhutto have been handled by U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson and the consul-general in the eastern city of Lahore, where Bhutto had been confined to her home. She was freed Friday from three days of house arrest imposed to stop her from leading protests.

McCormack said he did not expect Negroponte to meet Bhutto in person, saying "it's just a little bit easier to have a phone call, you don't have a media circus outside and you can actually have probably more relaxed conversation."

Negroponte, who is expected to speak to Musharraf on Saturday, arrived from a stop in Africa, where he said that the democratic process in Pakistan had been "derailed."

"Our message is that we want to work with the government and people of Pakistan and the political actors in Pakistan to put the political process back on track as soon as possible," Negroponte said.

Under domestic pressure for relying too heavily on Musharraf, Washington appears increasingly exasperated with a man that President Bush has long defended as a stalwart ally against international terrorism.

The White House has called for him to lift the emergency immediately or destroy the credibility of parliamentary elections.

Musharraf has insisted that he declared the emergency to prevent judicial meddling in the murky operations of Pakistan's security services and the rising militant threat from derailing the vote.

The military said Saturday that Pakistani troops backed by helicopter gunships and artillery attacked pro-Taliban militants in troubled northern Pakistan, killing up to 40 followers of a rebel cleric.

The men were killed Thursday in Kuza Banda, Basham and Shangla, three of the militants' strongholds in Swat district, the army said in a statement. In a separate incident, two soldiers were wounded when their convoy was attacked by hand grenades, the army said.

The latest deaths bring militant casualties in the past several days to 100 in Swat where troops are battling supporters from Maulana Fazlullah, a cleric who has asked his men to wage holy war against the army.

Pakistan's political crisis has also estranged Musharraf from Bhutto, a secular, pro-Western leader who had been expected to join forces with Musharraf if she fared well in the election.

Along with Bhutto, police freed two leaders of hard-line Islamic parties, along with Asma Jehangir, head of Pakistan's main human rights organization and a U.N. rights expert.

Bhutto, who leads Pakistan's largest opposition party, immediately reiterated her call for Musharraf to quit power, and said his sidelining of moderate opponents had allowed the rise of Islamic extremism.

She is calling for opposition parties to unite and maybe boycott the elections.

"Do we want to deny this nation its true legitimate leadership and make way ... for extremist forces?" she asked reporters in Lahore. "The West's interests lie in a democratic Pakistan."

Patrick Cronin, an analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, said Washington still hoped to persuade Musharraf to end the emergency and allow free elections "so they don't have to face the prospect of watching him go sooner rather than later."

He said U.S. officials were keen to avoid the embarrassment of dropping a man whose authoritarian rule they have long defended because of his help in Afghanistan and against al-Qaida, but also had to be seen to stand up for democracy.

The military is increasingly unhappy with Musharraf's alienation of Western backers and Pakistan's political parties and could yet force him out, Cronin said.

Musharraf "got a free ride because of 9/11 and that free ride is over," he said. However, Western governments "don't see an easy alternative in terms of how to make the transition because ultimately it's the Pakistan army and elite that are going to make this call."

Musharraf told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he expects to relinquish his role as army chief this month but stay on as a civilian president.

On Friday, he swore in an interim government headed by loyalist former Senate chairman Mohammedmian Soomro. Parliament was dissolved Thursday after completing its five-year term. The caretakers will manage the country until elections due by Jan. 9.

"I hope and pray that the new Cabinet and new prime minister, in these difficult times, functions with only one thing in mind: Pakistan comes first," Musharraf said.

In the northwestern city of Peshawar on Friday, police used tear gas and batons to break up a rally by 500 supporters of a coalition of religious parties and detained several of their leaders. The groups staged smaller rallies in Islamabad and the southern city of Karachi.


Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad in Islamabad, Zarar Khan in Lahore, Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Ashraf Khan in Karachi and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.