ISLAMABAD - Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, battling a wave of Islamist violence, suffered another blow Friday when the supreme court gave a victory to his political nemesis, the country's top judge.
Musharraf ousted independent-minded chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in March, but the court reinstated him and quashed corruption charges filed by the president in what critics say was a bid to retain his grip on power.
General Musharraf, who staged a bloodless coup in 1999, hopes to stay on as both president and army chief in defiance of the constitution.
The court ruling hit Musharraf during the worst crisis of his eight-year rule, amid a wave of deadly violence sparked by the bloody storming by government forces last week of the pro-Taliban Red Mosque in Islamabad.
The death toll from the Islamist carnage passed 200 in less than a week Friday, after another suicide attack killed four people in the tribal area of North Waziristan, where militants last Sunday tore up a shaky ceasefire pact.
Musharraf has come under intense pressure from the United States, one of Islamabad's key allies since the events of 9/11, to crack down on Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the troubled tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
At home, the supreme court's verdict was set to embolden activists who have staged mass rallies around the country in support of Chaudhry since his suspension, campaigning for democracy and judicial independence.
"Pervez Musharraf should resign because the charges were illegal and have been declared null and void by the highest legal authority in the country," Ali Ahmad Kurd, a senior lawyer for Chaudhry, said outside the court.
Munir Malik, head of the top lawyers' association, called the verdict "a new dawn for Pakistan" -- which has been under military rule for over half its existence -- and said "a free and independent judiciary has now been founded."
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said the government had accepted the supreme court's decision, which sparked massive celebrations by lawyers, but added it was "not the time to claim victory or defeat."
As fighting raged between troops and pro-Taliban fighters in North Waziristan, Musharraf convened a crisis meeting while government envoys and Pashtun elders met in a secret location in a bid to salvage the ceasefire deal.
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The military ruler has vowed to hunt down extremists who, according to Washington and NATO forces in Afghanistan, are hiding in Pakistan's northwest.
The White House -- losing patience after a recent intelligence assessment said al-Qaeda has "safe havens" in western Pakistan -- has ramped up the pressure on its key ally, and even warned the United States may go it alone.
Asked on Thursday whether US President George W. Bush had ruled out US military action inside Pakistan, his spokesman Tony Snow replied: "We never rule out any options, including striking actionable targets."
When reporters asked if Bush would first seek authorisation from Musharraf, Snow told them: "Those are matters that are best not discussed publicly."
Musharraf on Friday gathered key officials, including Aziz and the governor of troubled North West Frontier Province, for an emergency meeting focused on restoring order in the battle-torn northwest.
"The participants will exchange views on the law and order situation in the wake of the recent bomb blasts and discuss measures to control the situation and bring peace," a presidential spokesman told AFP.
Pakistan has been terrorised by an unprecedented wave of suicide attacks for almost a week, with bombers on Thursday targeting an army mosque, a police college and a convoy carrying Chinese nationals, killing a total of 54 people.
The attack against the Chinese mine engineers in insurgency-wracked Baluchistan apparently aimed to harm Islamabad's relations with Beijing, another crucial ally and its biggest provider of aid and military hardware.
China condemned the suicide car bomb attack that left at least 30 Pakistanis but no Chinese dead, two weeks after demanding better security for its citizens over the killing of three Chinese men.
Musharraf, who this week ruled out declaring a state of emergency or scrapping planned elections, has urged the nation to stand united.
"The challenge needs to be faced with courage, but one person alone cannot do it," he said Thursday. "I cannot do it alone. Neither the police, nor the army can do it alone, unless the people of the country support it."
Copyright © AFP 2007