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WASHINGTON, Nov 18: PPP Chairperson Benazir Bhutto appears to have softened her attitude towards President Pervez Musharraf following a visit by a top US envoy to Islamabad, which aimed at promoting reconciliation between her and the general.

Although still critical of Gen Musharraf, Ms Bhutto said in an interview to CNN on Sunday that she was waiting for him to respond to the message Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte brought from Washington.

Reports in the US media suggest that Mr Negroponte asked both Ms Bhutto and Gen Musharraf to shelve their differences and revive a power-sharing deal.

The US envoy spoke with Ms Bhutto before a 90-minute meeting with Gen Musharraf, which a US official described to The Washington Post as “short of tough love, but still tough”.“It was made clear that if things don’t change, aid money could be cut, and it was very serious and on the table,” the official said.The New York Times noted that Mr Negroponte met Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani twice. “The time and attention paid to General Kayani, a pro-Western moderate, seemed to signal American support for him,” the newspaper said.

In her interview to CNN Late Edition, Ms Bhutto twice avoided criticising Gen Musharraf when asked to do so, telling the interviewer instead: “I know where you want to take me.”

The interviewer also played the tape of an earlier interview with Gen Musharraf who accused Ms Bhutto of using his conciliatory gesture to come to Pakistan and later taking a confrontational stance against him. The interviewer then asked her if she still wanted to send him a reconciliatory message.

Ms Bhutto, who usually uses such opportunities to hit back with full force, politely said: “If Gen Musharraf is not responding to Washington’s call to retire (as chief of army staff), and Washington is giving him $10 billion, I wonder he would be ever ready to respond to my call for a political reconciliation.

She said she had made a reconciliatory arrangement with Gen Musharraf to “avoid the mess we are in today.” But when Gen Musharraf suspended the Constitution she came to the conclusion that he was not interested in giving the opposition a fair chance.

When the interviewer asked if she was going to reconsider her decision now, Ms Bhutto said: “I know where you are taking me. Let’s first see if he responds to Washington.”

She said for holding fair and free elections, Gen Musharraf needed to reconstruct the Election Commission, suspend existing nazims who could manipulate the elections and take other steps.

Gen Musharraf, she said, also needed to send a powerful message to the militants that they could not get away with attacking politicians by calling in international investigators to probe the attack on her procession.

Ms Bhutto said the government’s decision to release her and other political prisoners was timed to coincide with Mr Negroponte’s visit to send a positive signal to Washington. Several thousand political workers, however, were still behind bars, she added.

Ms Bhutto said the US envoy did the right thing in publicly asking the Musharraf government to lift the curbs on the media, release political workers and retire as COAS.

The nation, she said, was waiting for Gen Musharraf to give a fixed date to retire as army chief but he had not done so.

Ms Bhutto also responded to former US Secretary of Madeleine Albright’s recent statement that as bad as Gen Musharraf might be, he had made a major contribution to fighting terrorism.

Ms Bhutto said what the general had done was not enough as terrorists were spreading their tentacles from the tribal to settled areas of the NWFP and were also knocking at the doors of Islamabad.

She said that in Swat the government was conducting carpet-bombing which was also killing innocent civilians.

Ms Bhutto said she would like to see the local population co-opted against the terrorists.

Invited to comment on an article her niece Fatima Bhutto wrote in the Los Angeles Times, attacking her as a leader who had no principles and was willing to compromise her principles to gain power, Ms Bhutto said: “I know my niece is angry with me” but what she had done aimed at ensuring that fair and free elections were held in Pakistan.