President Gen. Pervez Musharraf rejected "any pressure or ultimatum" to decide whether to quit as army chief, his spokesman said Thursday, after an opponent claimed he would step down under a pact to restore Pakistan to democracy.
The U.S.-allied general and Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto are negotiating an agreement that could end military rule eight years after Musharraf seized power in a coup and see him share power with the opposition.
Officials were unavailable or declined to comment directly on Bhutto's assertion Wednesday that Musharraf had already decided to leave his powerful military post.
However, his office released a statement rejecting reports that Bhutto's call for concrete commitments by the end of this week amounted to an ultimatum to decide whether to remove his uniform.
While the president believed in dialogue "on all important national issues, he never worked under any pressure or ultimatum," his spokesman Rashid Qureshi said in a faxed statement.
Musharraf will make "all decisions only in national interest at appropriate times and according to the constitution and the law," Qureshi said.
At stake is a pact that would protect Musharraf's troubled re-election bid from looming legal challenges and public disenchantment with military rule.
In return, Musharraf is expected to give up his role as army chief and let Bhutto return from exile in London to contest year-end parliamentary elections.
Bhutto told The Associated Press on Wednesday that she was "very pleased that Gen. Musharraf has taken the decision to listen to the people of Pakistan by taking the decision to take off the uniform."
"I expect that he will step down (as army chief) before the presidential elections, but that is for the president to say," she said in a telephone interview.
Ministers in Pakistan have confirmed that the two sides were close to finalizing an agreement.
Musharraf has insisted that the constitution allows him to be army chief until the end of 2007 but has never made clear when _ or if _ he will step down.
However, Bhutto and other opposition leaders argue the constitution obliges him to give up that post before he asks lawmakers for a fresh presidential mandate in September or October.
Bhutto said that, while Musharraf had also agreed to drop corruption charges against her and dozens of other parliamentarians, a remaining stumbling block is the balance of power between Parliament and the president, who can currently sack the prime minister and dissolve the legislature.
Bhutto said she hoped for a breakthrough in the negotiations "in the next few days" and that Musharraf's silence on his military role "could be a tactical rather that strategic retreat" until all issues have been resolved.
Musharraf has seen his authority erode since March, when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the Supreme Court's top judge. The move triggered protests that grew into a broad pro-democracy campaign.
The court reinstated the judge in July, raising expectations that it will uphold legal challenges to Musharraf's re-election plan.
Officials say the pact with Bhutto would include constitutional amendments to forestall those challenges.
Last week, the court ruled that Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister toppled in 1999 who is also living in exile, can return to Pakistan.
The prospect of Sharif, who denounces Musharraf as a tyrant, making a tumultuous return has added to the urgency of an accommodation between Musharraf and Bhutto, who share a relatively liberal, pro-Western outlook and stress the need to prevent the political crisis from destabilizing the nuclear-armed nation.
Musharraf had vowed to prevent either former leader from re-entering Pakistan. He blames them for the corruption and economic problems that nearly bankrupted the country in the 1990s, when Bhutto and Sharif each had two short-lived turns as prime minister.
But with the United States pressing for more democracy as well as a redoubled effort against al-Qaida and Taliban militants near the Afghan border, Musharraf recently began calling for political reconciliation and an alliance of moderates to defeat extremists.
Associated Press writer Paisley Dodds in London contributed to this report.