Musharraf frees thousands

ISLAMABAD - President General Pervez Musharraf freed thousands of opponents from jails in a sign he is rolling back a wave of repression under emergency rule and flew to Saudi Arabia to talk about the future of an exiled rival, Nawaz Sharif.

Saudi officials said there were efforts to arrange a meeting between Musharraf and Sharif, who was ousted as prime minister by the general's 1999 coup. However, a Pakistani official said Musharraf's goal was to prevent Sharif from returning before parliamentary elections on January 8.

Back home, the political cauldron continued to boil, with dozens of journalists detained for several hours after clashing with police and newly freed opposition lawyers vowing to keep up their protest.

The Interior Ministry said some 3,400 people had been released from jail, among them political activists and lawyers at the forefront of protests against the Pakistani leader before and after he declared emergency rule on November 3.

Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said more than 2000 political opponents who remained behind bars would be released shortly.

However, many high-ranking party activists and leaders, such as former cricket star turned politician Imran Khan and Aitzaz Ahsan, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, remained in prison.

Khan began a hunger strike on Tuesday to protest against emergency rule.

Musharraf has also purged the Supreme Court and took independent television news off the air, raising concern the elections will lack credibility.

The Government did not say what prompted the mass release, but it came just days after a visit by US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who issued a blunt call for Musharraf to end emergency rule.

It remains unclear if Negroponte discussed Sharif's fate. However, Musharraf made his first foreign trip since the crisis began to hold talks with Saudi leaders.

While Washington remains Musharraf's key backer, providing billions of dollars in aid in return for Pakistan's help against al Qaeda and the Taleban, Saudi Arabia's own aid and investment give it considerable influence. Saudis have for years funded fundamentalist Sunni Muslim clerics and schools, giving the kingdom sway among Pakistan's powerful Islamic movements.

Details of Musharraf's meeting with Saudi King Abdullah were not available, but an official said Saudi leaders wanted the general to let Sharif return and compete in next month's elections. Musharraf, the official said, was seeking to persuade Saudi Arabia that Sharif could not come back now because it would deepen the political turmoil and threaten Pakistan's stability.

The Commonwealth meets later this week to decide whether to suspend Pakistan over the declaration of emergency.

- AP

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