ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — About 100 retired senior military officers issued a blunt open letter Tuesday exhorting President Pervez Musharraf to resign, as an attack on an army fort in a troubled tribal zone near Afghanistan left 37 Islamic militants dead.
The demand from the retired officers is the latest sign that Musharraf, who's traveling in Europe to shore up his battered image, faces increasingly strong challenges to his rule. Musharraf shed his army uniform last month but relies on the military as a pillar of support.
The retired officers — including some two dozen army generals, three air force air marshals and eight naval admirals — signed the letter after a meeting at a hotel adjacent to the general headquarters of the Pakistan armed forces in nearby Rawalpindi. The letter said the officers voiced "great concern and anguish" during discussions about the "prevailing conditions" in the country.
Some of the officers had signed statements against Musharraf before, but never in such numbers.
The group, calling itself the Pakistan Ex-Servicemen's Society, said in its statement that it had determined that Musharraf must act quickly.
"He should resign his office of the president. This is in the supreme national interest and makes it incumbent on him to step down," it said.
The group's leader, retired army Lt. Gen. Faiz Ali Chishti, said in a telephone interview that the retired officers believe they represent most Pakistanis.
"We are speaking our conscience," Chishti said. "This is what the nation wants."
Musharraf is expected to travel from France to Switzerland on Wednesday, where he'll attend sessions of the World Economic Forum at the Davos alpine resort and meet U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. During a stop in Brussels, Belgium, on the eight-day trip, Musharraf pledged that the Feb. 18 elections would be free, fair and transparent.
Uncertainty has enveloped Pakistan following the Dec. 27 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister and leading politician. Recent bombings have hit all three major cities of Pakistan.
Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, a retired army chief, predicted that the officers' statement wouldn't have much impact on Musharraf.
"He will ignore them," Aslam Beg said.
Aslam Beg, who said he didn't sign the letter Tuesday, although his name appeared on a printed copy, said that the 64-year-old Musharraf would have difficulty hanging on to the power he's held since a 1999 bloodless coup.
"It is time for General Musharraf to quit. There is no doubt about it," Aslam Beg said. "He could have done it with grace. But now his options are very limited. . . . After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, things have become very difficult for him."
The letter emerged as Adm. William Fallon, head of the U.S. Central Command that deals with the Middle East, met army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani in Rawalpindi.
The Bush administration has voiced growing concerns about radical Taliban control of restive tribal areas abutting Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. The tribal zone has become a hideout for an al Qaida-linked warlord, Baitullah Mehsud, who's accused of plotting Bhutto's assassination.
It was in that restive region that Islamic militants in the South Waziristan region killed five Pakistani soldiers in a raid on a fort on Tuesday. The army later said in a statement that military airstrikes after the raid left 37 militants dead.