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Musharraf 'to quit army by end of the week'

November 19, 2007

President Musharraf of Pakistan has decided to resign as Army chief by the end of the week, it emerged today.

Sources close to the Pakistani President indicated that he wanted to stand down almost immediately if a Supreme Court newly packed with his supporters decides, as expected, to reject the final legal challenge to his victory in last month's election on Thursday.

Today, the court rejected the first five of six legal challenges to his continued rule. After sustained domestic and international pressure, General Musharraf has already said he will quit as Army chief once the court gives him the green light to serve a second term.

Speaking after the court decision today, Mohammed ali-Saif, a member of the President's legal team, said that a decision in his favour next Thursday would be decisive.

"The court ruling has cleared the way for General Musharraf to continue in power for another five-year term," he said.

Zahid Hussain, the Times correspondent in Islamabad, said sources close to the President gave clear indications that General Musharraf intended to stand down as Army chief almost as soon as the court decision was finalised.

"The indications are that he will take off his uniform either by Thursday or by the end of the week," he said.

Critics of the Pakistani President claim that he engineered the Supreme Court's decision today by sacking a number of independently-minded judges who had been due to consider the case when the state of emergency was called.

However despite today's verdict, and the pledge to take off his uniform, the internal friction caused by the President's hardline crackdown continued.

It has been claimed that General Musharraf's aides contacted those close to the exiled opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, with the intention of meeting him when the President visits Saudi Arabia tomorrow. Aides to Mr Sharif, however, say he rejected the offer, and is believed to be continuing talks with Benazir Bhutto, another opposition leader, to form a united front against him.

Meanwhile, it emerged that Imran Khan, the former cricketer jailed last week for protesting against emergency rule, has started a hunger strike today. Mr Khan, who leads a small opposition party, is in a high-security prison in Lahore usually reserved for major terrorist suspects.

Pressure from Pakistan's key ally, the United States, also showed no sign of easing today as General Musharraf refused to bow to American requests to call an immediate end to the state of emergency, or to release thousands of political opponents, lawyers and judges who were arrested when it was declared.

Yesterday, John Negroponte, the US Deputy Secretary of State, urged the military ruler to restore democratic rights before parliamentary elections and stop emergency rule.

"Emergency rule is not compatible with free, fair and credible elections," Mr Negroponte told reporters at the end of his visit to Pakistan.

General Musharraf, however, retorted that the state of emergency would be lifted only if security improved, indicating that this was unlikely before the elections to be held on January 9.

He did however order the release from house arrest of Ms Bhutto, a former prime minister, and the authorities freed a number of other political prisoners before Mr Negroponte’s visit. But thousands remain in prison and restrictions on the media continue. At the weekend the Government blocked Geo and ARY, leading private television channels that transmit from nearby Dubai.

Mr Negroponte telephoned Ms Bhutto soon after she was released, telling her that America was keen to see opposition figures take part in Pakistani politics. He urged Ms Bhutto resume talks with General Musharraf, underscoring America’s hopes of salvaging the fractious relationship between the two pro-Western leaders. Mr Negroponte asked them to restart talks and ease the atmosphere of brinkmanship and political confrontation.

But there seemed to be little hope that the power-sharing deal could be revived, with Ms Bhutto taking a collision path demanding that General Musharraf quit power.

Ms Bhutto has already ruled out negotiating with the President to form a coalition government to end the country's political crisis regardless of the Supreme Court's verdict, vowing to form an alliance with other opposition parties including that of Mr Sharif to defeat him.

General Musharraf had cited growing Islamic militancy as the main reason for imposing the state of emergency on November 3. But analysts and human rights activists said that most of those targeted were political moderates, not extremists, who were concerned at the way the President had ridden rough-shod over the constitution.

There is concern in Washington over the repercussions that political instability in Pakistan could have for the War on Terror and regional security. General Musharraf, who seized power in 1999, has been a key Western ally in the region.

Yesterday Mr Negroponte praised General Musharraf’s efforts in the fight against terrorism. "President Musharraf has been and continues to be a strong voice against extremism," he said. "We value our partnership with the Government of Pakistan under the leadership of President Musharraf."

Three days of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims have left 91 people dead in a northwestern Pakistan town. Both sides fired mortars and weapons at each other in the town of Parachinar, targeting residential areas and hitting mosques. The military said that 80 civilians and 11 security personnel were killed.
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