Associates of Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf are in London for critical talks with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's party as it mulls whether the political rivals can reach a power-sharing deal, officials from both sides said Saturday.
Bhutto met Friday with colleagues from her Pakistan People's Party and was to hold more discussions with them on Saturday on whether to keep negotiating with the military leader.
Musharraf and Bhutto have been wrangling for months over the terms of an agreement that would shore up his re-election bid and allow her to return to Pakistan to contest parliamentary elections.
However, she has yet to win a public commitment from Musharraf on two critical points _ that he step down as army chief and give up the power to dismiss the government and Parliament.
Wajid Hassan, a party spokesman in London, said the Pakistan People's Party was waiting for written answers to questions raised with Musharraf's officials.
"Today is again an important day, and if Benazir Bhutto does not come up with more demands, I hope and expect that the talks should succeed," said Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani in the Pakistani capital, although he refused to confirm whether government representatives were meeting with Bhutto this weekend.
But a Cabinet minister and a senior figure in the Pakistan People's Party in Islamabad said associates of Musharraf were in London for talks with Bhutto's side. Both requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue and said they had no details of the discussions, whose outcome remained uncertain.
"We would like to know firmly whether the government agrees to our proposals for the transition to democracy or not," Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Bhutto's party, told The Associated Press on Friday.
"If we conclude that the talks are leading nowhere, we have a number of options," including breaking them off, Babar said in Islamabad.
Bhutto said Wednesday that Musharraf had agreed to step down as military chief before he asks lawmakers for a new term as president in either September or October.
However, The New York Times reported on its Web site Friday night that the president of Pakistan's ruling party and one of Musharraf's closest allies, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, said the president would resign from his post as army chief before parliamentary elections scheduled for early January. He told the newspaper in an interview that Musharraf would run for re-election while still in uniform.
Information Minister Durrani stopped short Saturday of confirming that Musharraf would give up his uniform. Any such decision would be announced only by the president, he said.
"President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's term as the army chief and the president expires in December, and he has said that he will follow the Constitution, and we think that he will take this decision at an appropriate time," Durrani said. "He will announce it himself."
Musharraf, who governed Pakistan virtually unchallenged for years after he seized power in 1999, is in a three-way fight for power with Bhutto and another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, the man he deposed in a bloodless coup.
Musharraf once vowed not to let either return to Pakistan, accusing them of corruption and mismanaging Pakistan in the 1980s, when each served two truncated terms.
But he has lost support since a botched attempt to fire the country's top judge in March spawned street protests and widespread calls for an end to military rule.
Sharif vowed Thursday to return to Pakistan on Sept. 10 to wage a "decisive battle against dictatorship."
Hassan said the Pakistan People's Party had set a date in October for Bhutto's return to Pakistan _ but the party has yet to announce it.
Bhutto's dialogue with the government has angered Sharif, who has accused Bhutto of breaking an agreement among opposition leaders to fight against prolonging Musharraf's regime.
Despite their differences, Bhutto party spokesman Babar insisted she could still join Sharif in outright opposition to Musharraf.
Associated Press writers Stephen Graham in Islamabad and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.