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Rumor of Pakistan State of Emergency Sparks Furor

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

A political furor erupted in Pakistan today after government officials said that President Pervez Musharraf might declare a state of emergency. Pakistani news reports say the general met top aides and legal advisers today to consider that option. But in the last few hours, a senior Musharraf aide has denied that there'll be a state of emergency.

News of that possible declaration came after Musharraf abruptly cancelled a planned visit to Afghanistan, where he was to attend a special conference among Afghan and Pakistani government and tribal leaders that opened today in Kabul.

We're joined now by our South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves. And Philip, a state of emergency would be a pretty momentous move. Why would Musharraf even consider that step?

PHILIP REEVES: Well, the official reason would likely be that the security crisis that he's been facing in Pakistan's northwest for a number of weeks now. There have been a wave of attacks up there, including suicide bombings, which began after the storming by government forces of the Red Mosque in Islamabad. And this also involved the tribal region of Waziristan, which U.S. intelligence says is an al-Qaida haven. That's turned again into a war zone after the collapse of a peace agreement out there.

And there have been regular attacks by militants on Pakistani forces and vice versa. Officials might also cite what they perceive to be threats by the U.S. to conduct unilateral military strikes against militants like al-Qaida and Taliban inside Pakistani territory. That is an extremely sensitive issue in Pakistan.

MONTAGNE: Now, you said the official reason would - is there another possible real reason?

REEVES: Oh, yes. There are plenty of other reasons, too. I mean, the bottom line is that Pervez Musharraf has got a serious problem. He had never made much secret that he wants another term as president whilst remaining chief of staff of the armed forces. He wants to be re-elected by the country's current national and provincial parliaments, whose terms are about to expire.

His opponents, who are growing in voice and number, are likely to challenge him over this in court, and they'll do so before a judiciary that's greatly involved after Pakistan's supreme court reinstated the country's chief justice last month, who Musharraf, of course, had been trying to dismiss. Those opponents are now circling. The prime minister he deposed in a coup, Nawaz Sharif, is petitioning the supreme court to let him to return to Pakistan. And, of course, Benazir Bhutto, with whom Musharraf has been exploring a power sharing deal, is being highly critical, not least at the possibility of a state of emergency. And there are no signs of that deal coming off. So he's in a political bind.

MONTAGNE: And what, in practical terms, would a state of emergency mean for Pakistan?

REEVES: Well, I think it will allow him, Musharraf, at any rate, it would allow him to buy himself a bit of time. It allows the term of the parliament, the present parliament, to be extended by up to a year. That means Musharraf would be able to delay the elections. Although it's worth noting that parliament is supposed, eventually, to pass a resolution approving that state of emergency for it remain in force beyond two months. It also gives the government greater powers to crack down on political opponents. For example, it suspends clauses in the constitution that provide the right to free movement, free assembly, peaceful protest, free speech, and so on. Although in recent months, it has to be said that there have been considerable violations of those rights by Pakistan's security forces, particularly during the demonstrations in support of the chief justice.

MONTAGNE: Now, that peace conference in Afghanistan known as the jigra, it's now opened. It was long planned, many, many months. Musharraf is a no-show at the last minute. What will be the impact there?

REEVES: Well, Musharraf sent along his prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, in his place. His own absence, as he's head of the army, of course, and the intelligence services, you know, does reduce the weight attached to the conference, particularly as one of the main themes of the conference is cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan and a key player, Musharraf, isn't going to be there.

But it's worth noting that many delegates from Pakistan's tribal belt, Waziristan, which is the epicenter of some of the problems in that conflict, have also boycotted this event. The Taliban is not there. And there were never high expectations that it would produce any really significant results.

MONTAGNE: Philip, thank you very much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Philip Reeves. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.