Islamabad, Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf freed thousands of opponents from jails Tuesday in a sign he is rolling back a wave of repression under emergency rule and flew to Saudi Arabia to talk about the future of an exiled rival, Nawaz Sharif.
Saudi officials said there were efforts to arrange a meeting between Musharraf and Sharif, who was ousted as prime minister by the general's 1999 coup. However, a Pakistani official said Musharraf's goal was to prevent Sharif from returning before parliamentary elections Jan. 8.
Back home, the political cauldron continued to boil, with dozens of journalists detained for several hours after clashing with police during a protest and newly freed opposition lawyers vowing to keep up their agitation.
But there was also some relief for Musharraf. Ex-premier Benazir Bhutto, leader of a key opposition party, deferred a decision on whether to boycott the elections, which the West hopes will produce a moderate government able to stand up to Pakistan's rising Islamic extremism.
The Interior Ministry said 3,400 people had been released from jail, among them political activists and lawyers at the forefront of protests against Musharraf before and after he decreed emergency rule Nov. 3, purging the Supreme Court and taking independent TV news off the air.
Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said more than 2,000 others remained behind bars but would be released shortly.
Many high-ranking party activists and leaders, such as former cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan and Aitzaz Ahsan, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, remained in prison. Khan began a hunger strike Monday to protest emergency rule.
The Pakistani leader flew to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday on his first foreign trip since the crisis began. Saudi Arabia's aid and investment give it considerable influence in Pakistan.
Musharraf talked with Saudi security officials for several hours before meeting with King Abdullah, Saudi authorities said, without giving any details of the discussions.
An official in Musharraf's office in Islamabad said Saudi leaders wanted the general to let Sharif return home and compete in the elections. Musharraf argued that Sharif, a leader in Pakistan's other main opposition party, could not come back now because that would worsen the unrest and threaten the country's stability, the official said.
The official said Musharraf had privately told aides that he would be prepared to let Sharif return after the vote, provided he toned down his rhetoric against the general.