Musharraf Eases Grip on Powers

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan freed thousands of lawyers and opposition activists held under emergency powers on Tuesday, as President Pervez Musharraf arrived in Saudi Arabia, where old foe Nawaz Sharif lives in exile.

Army chief General Musharraf has been under pressure from the opposition and Western governments to revoke the emergency rule imposed Nov. 3 and ensure elections in January are held under free and fair conditions.

In a sign that the emergency was being relaxed, Pakistani Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema announced that around 3,400 detainees had been released by Tuesday and some 2,000 more would be released soon.

Increasingly isolated at home, Musharraf flew to Saudi Arabia leaving a trail of speculation that he would reach out to Sharif, the prime minister he deposed in a 1999 coup, who is now living in exile in the Saudi city of Jeddah.

Musharraf was accompanied by Lieutenant General Nadeem Taj, head of the Inter-Services Intelligence. Musharraf was expected to stay in Riyadh for a few hours before going to Jeddah on his way for a pilgrimage to Mecca.

The sudden visit raised speculation that Musharraf could turn to Sharif as prospects for a postelection power sharing deal with Benazir Bhutto, another former prime minister, have receded.

"Musharraf is in big trouble, and I don't think Nawaz Sharif will agree to support him," said Noor Ellahi, 55, owner of a roadside restaurant in the southern city of Karachi.

"The only option left with Musharraf is probably Benazir Bhutto, but that too is very difficult."

Sharif said Monday that he would not meet Musharraf unless the emergency was rolled back, and that he had rebuffed approaches for a meeting.

The Pakistani Election Commission announced on Tuesday that parliamentary polls would be held on Jan. 8, the date chosen by Musharraf, but the unpopular military leader has been warned the election will lack credibility if the emergency remains in place.