Pakistan's government said Tuesday that it had released more than half of the lawyers and political activists jailed under President Pervez Musharraf's emergency rule. Analysts called it a sign that the president, who is under pressure from the Bush administration to reverse a crackdown on the opposition, is relaxing some of his most unpopular measures.
In another sign that the government seeks to ease international pressure, the election commission confirmed that the nation would vote for a new parliament Jan. 8.
Interior Ministry spokesman Javid Iqbal Cheema told reporters that 3,416 detainees had been released, and that the remaining 2,000 would be freed "soon."
Washington cautiously welcomed the releases. A spokesperson for the White House said that the news, if confirmed "would be a positive development."
The releases came hours after a panel of Supreme Court justices hand-picked earlier this month by Musharraf dismissed most of the legal challenges to his disputed reelection as president.
Many opposition leaders, among them cricket legend Imran Khan, remained in custody. Khan began a hunger strike Monday to protest the emergency measures.
Hours after Interior Ministry's announcement, police detained about 150 journalists in the cities of Karachi and Hyderabad amid a protest over the state of emergency. Some of the journalists were beaten with batons.
Musharraf has defended his Nov. 3 decision to impose emergency rule, saying it is necessary to stabilize the country in the face of attacks by Islamic militants. But most of those jailed have been lawyers, civil servants, and political activists.
Before Tuesday's announcement of the prisoner releases, Musharraf left for a two-day visit to Saudi Arabia. The visit is fueling speculation that he'd reach out to exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But Sharif has said he will not meet with Musharraf until the emergency rule is lifted.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's opposition parties are in talks about whether to boycott January's general election.
Material from wire services was used in this report.