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Pakistani President Drives Out Prime Minister and Parliament

By Kamran Khan
The Washington Post
KARACHI, Pakistan

Pakistani President Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari dismissed Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto early Tuesday and dissolved the National Assembly in a decree he said was mandated by corruption, political violence, and financial mismanagement by Bhutto's government.

The president's action, though legal under Pakistan's constitution, was backed up by Pakistani army troops who surrounded Bhutto's house in the capital, Islamabad, as well as the parliament and radio and television stations in major cities. The country's airports were closed. Bhutto, 43, elected prime minister in 1993, was reported to be in her residence but not under formal detention.

The decree marked the second time that Bhutto has been dismissed from the prime minister's office on charges of corruption and delivered a new blow to Pakistan's faltering democracy. Under relentless pressure from the military, no elected Pakistani prime minister has finished a full term in office, and Bhutto's predecessor, Nawaz Sharif, was forced to resign.

Leghari, who issued his decree at 1:45 a.m., called for new elections to be held Feb. 3. Senior official sources said that Malik Meraj Khalid, a founding member of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, would take over as acting prime minister later Tuesday.

Bhutto's dismissal came amid a bitter political struggle with the Supreme Court, which recently thwarted Bhutto's attempt to appoint political loyalists as judges by ruling that judicial appointments were the prerogative of the president. Bhutto also was haunted by charges that she and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, had collected bribes and kickbacks on government contracts and siphoned millions of dollars into foreign bank accounts and property holdings.

Well-placed officials said that in August this year the army had warned Leghari about growing unrest in its ranks and had provided the president with evidence about corruption involving Zardari. An informed official said Tuesday morning that Zardari and other senior officials of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party have been barred from leaving the country.

Bhutto denied the charges against her and as recently as Sunday vowed to complete her five-year term, saying "we cannot imagine (Leghari) using his powers to dismiss the government."