Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte says he has urged Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to lift emergency rule as soon as possible because it is "not compatible with free and fair elections." He also asked Musharraf to free thousands of political detainees and members of the media that have been arrested.
Negroponte praised Musharraf for leading Pakistan down a path of moderation and democracy, but said, "Unfortunately, the recent police actions against protestors, suppression of the media, and the arrests of political and human rights leaders run directly counter to the reforms that have been undertaken in recent years."
Negroponte is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Pakistan since President Musharraf enacted what, analysts say, is tantamount to a state of martial law.
The ambassador said Sunday morning that it was too early to determine whether his meeting with Musharraf was a success. He said that during their conversation, Musharraf repeated, in "categorical terms," his commitment to hold elections in January and to retire from his post as army chief before being sworn-in for a second presidential term.
But a day after their meeting, protesters shouted "Free the media!" in front of one of two major independent television stations that have been forced to stop transmission in the last few days.
Children at the demonstration held signs with messages, such as, "Uncle Musharraf, please free my dad." Thousands of journalists, lawyers, and political opposition leaders remain behind bars.
The constitution remains suspended, and a Supreme Court justice is among those being held under house arrest.
Even under pressure by the United States, which has given Pakistan $10 billion in aid since the Sept. 11 attacks, Musharraf has so far shown no sign that he will surrender his emergency powers. He cites continuing security concerns and says the emergency rule is needed to combat terrorism.
Meanwhile, extremists are gaining ground. For months, pro-Taliban fighters have overrun Swat, a picturesque tourist town in the northern valleys. But only now is Musharraf commanding an offensive to rout out the militants, sending in 15,000 troops.
Negroponte says he discussed the impending military operation with Musharraf and Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who is in line to replace Musharraf as head of the Army.
"I have no doubt of the commitment of the Pakistani government, army and security forces to deal with that situation [in Swat]," said Negroponte.
During his brief visit, Negroponte also spoke by phone to opposition leader and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. She and Musharraf had been discussing a power-sharing deal earlier this month, which was supported by the United States. However, after being placed under house arrest twice since Musharraf declared the state of emergency, she is now calling for the Musharraf to resign.
"In recent days and weeks, the situation appears to have polarized, and that, of course, has had the effect of throwing the political process off track," said Negroponte. "But if steps were taken by both sides to move back to the kinds of reconciliation discussions that they had been having previously, we think that would be very positive."