LAHORE, Pakistan - The Pakistani government early today placed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto under house arrest for seven days and said her party would be barred from holding a major procession to protest emergency rule.
Bhutto had planned to lead the procession later today from Lahore to Islamabad, the capital, more than 200 miles to the west by road. But the government said it had intelligence suggesting that a suicide bombing targeting Bhutto had been planned, and that her detention, in a party activist's home in Lahore, was for her own safety.
The opposition had vowed yesterday to push ahead with plans for the procession, but it was unclear how many demonstrators would turn out, given the government's order and that their leader, Bhutto, would be prevented from participating. Police erected barricades around the house where she was staying, and snipers were on neighborhood rooftops.
Tariq Azim Khan, a government spokesman, said that even without Bhutto, the procession would not be permitted under the emergency rule that President Pervez Musharraf imposed Nov. 3.
"All rallies, all political gatherings, are outlawed," Khan said. Bhutto "shouldn't break the law. It's too dangerous."
The opposition leader was the target of a suicide attack in the southern city of Karachi on Oct. 18 during a celebration marking her return from eight years in exile. An estimated 145 people were killed.
During a visit to the tomb of a renowned 19th-century poet in Lahore yesterday, Bhutto said the procession was necessary "to save Pakistan," and worth the risk.
"I know it is dangerous," she told reporters before the government announced that she would be detained. "But I ask myself: 'What is the alternative, and how can we save our country?'
"We appeal to all people, including from other parties and minorities, women, and children, to take part in this long march."
Opposition parties threatened yesterday to boycott elections planned for Jan. 9 unless emergency rule were lifted. With opposition leaders jailed and independent news media blocked, they said, a free and fair vote is impossible.
In London, the 53-nation Commonwealth, a group made mostly of former British colonies and dependencies, threatened to suspend Pakistan's membership unless Musharraf repeals the emergency decree, steps down as army chief, releases political detainees, removes media restrictions, and acts to create conditions for free and fair elections.
Commonwealth foreign ministers warned in a statement that the planned elections "would not be credible unless the state of emergency is removed and constitutional rights of the people, political parties, and independence of the judiciary are restored." The ministers agreed to review Pakistan's progress at their next meeting on Nov. 22, and to "suspend Pakistan from the Councils of the Commonwealth" if the government fails to implement the specified measures, the statement said.
The government's moves were the latest setbacks for the opposition since Musharraf declared emergency rule, fired several Supreme Court justices, and suspended the constitution.
A key ally in US counterterrorism efforts, Musharraf said the moves were essential if he were to have a freer hand in battling extremism. Western diplomats and even his aides have said privately that his main objective was to stop the Supreme Court from ruling his Oct. 6 reelection invalid.
Although he set a date for parliamentary elections, Musharraf declined to say when the emergency would be lifted and the constitution restored. Bhutto has warned that she would hold no talks with Musharraf as long as the constitution was suspended.
"If there's an emergency, if the constitution is not restored, there cannot be talks," she said yesterday.