Pakistan's deposed top judge has urged people to “rise up” against President Pervez Musharraf's emergency rule, as the government cracked down on fresh protests amid growing international pressure.
Opposition leader and former premier Benazir Bhutto meanwhile arrived in Islamabad for talks with political allies, saying she had no plans to meet with the nuclear-armed nation's military ruler.
Sacked chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry called on his countrymen to save the constitution, prompting authorities to cut mobile phone coverage in parts of Islamabad as he addressed a meeting of lawyers by telephone.
“I want lawyers to spread my message to the people of Pakistan,” he said to cheers from supporters before all lines went dead. “The time for sacrifice has come, to rise up for the supremacy of the constitution.”
On Tuesday, Musharraf brushed off calls from US President George W Bush and other world leaders to end the state of emergency he declared on Saturday, quit as army chief and hold elections due in January.
But in a sign of growing international pressure, the Commonwealth said it had called an extraordinary meeting to discuss the state of emergency. These talks could in theory result in the country's suspension.
Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999 and has since become a key US ally in the “war on terror,” cited a meddling judiciary as one of the reasons for clamping down, along with spiralling Islamic militancy.
Pro-Taliban fighters took control of a northwestern town on Tuesday despite the emergency, flying flags from government buildings in the latest push by followers of a hardline cleric calling for Islamic law.
Pakistan's cabinet met later to discuss the timetable for elections but made no decisions, amid reports of a split in the government about whether to hold them on schedule in early 2008.
Information Minister Mohammad Ali Durrani said the timing of events depended on “legal issues” such as resolving a pending Supreme Court ruling on the legality of Musharraf's victory in an October 6 presidential election.
Batons and tear gas
Chaudhry, one of nine judges sacked for refusing to endorse the emergency order and now under effective house arrest, said Musharraf's “junta” had cracked down because it was scared the verdict would go against him.
In a second day of protests, police used batons and tear gas to break up a rally by 1,000 lawyers in the central city of Multan, witnesses said. Another 50 lawyers were detained in Lahore, according to witnesses, and in northwestern Peshawar, police arrested seven members of former premier Nawaz Sharif's party.
Police sources have said that around 1,500 opposition workers, lawyers and civil society members have been detained since Saturday.
Ppposition leader and former Pakistan cricketing superstar Imran Khan said the US was complicit in Musharraf's
declaration of a state of emergency in an email that was published in Britain.
The police “ransacked my house and ill-treated my family members,” he said in a statement published by Britain's Press Association news agency.
There has been global criticism of the state of emergency and the ensuing crackdown, but Pakistan's foreign office said it was an “internal” matter that was needed to fight terrorism.
Pakistan's Interior Ministry said a record 667 people had been killed and 2,000 injured in “terrorist” attacks this year, including an unprecedented 43 suicide bombings.
Television news channels remained blacked out for a fourth day under stringent curbs on the media.
The United States said it had begun studying whether to suspend any of its multi-billion-dollar aid program.
But State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the US government had to weigh its legal obligations against ensuring that it continued to bolster Pakistan in its battles against Islamist militants.
Aid programs cut
The European Union called on the Pakistani authorities to urgently restore the country's constitution and release all political prisoners while Britain said it was considering its aid programs. The Netherlands is the only country to cut aid so far.
Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon has convened a meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group at the organisation's London headquarters on Monday.
Pakistan was suspended from the Commonwealth in October 1999 and restored in May 2004. However, it has since remained on the CMAG agenda.
In Australia, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the government's message to General Musharraf remained the same as it had been since Saturday.
“Our message to president Musharraf is to get back on to the path of democracy,” Mr Downer told ABC television last night. “I want to see the parliamentary elections go ahead as scheduled in the middle of January next year.”