Pakistan detains hundreds ahead of ex-PM's return

Pakistani authorities tightened security at Islamabad's airport after detaining more than 2,000 supporters of exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, his party said on Sunday, the eve of his planned return.

Pakistan detains hundreds ahead of ex-PM's return
Pakistani authorities tightened security at Islamabad's airport after detaining more than 2,000 supporters of exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, his party said on Sunday, the eve of his planned return.

Sharif, ousted by army chief General Pervez Musharraf in 1999, says he is determined to fly home from London on Monday to try to end President Musharraf's rule despite an appeal from a Saudi official for him to stay away for the sake of stability.

"I am, God willing, coming on the 10th of September and please don't try to stop me," he told reporters in London at a weekend news conference.

He said Musharraf thought that might was right and believed "in the law of the jungle. One cannot expect anything else from him. So I am not scared, let me tell you."

The return of Sharif is a serious challenge for Musharraf, who has lost much support since trying to dismiss the country's top judge in March.

Musharraf is preparing to try to secure another term in a presidential election by the national and provincial assemblies some time between September 15 and October 15.

A general election is due around the end of the year.

Musharraf is also trying to seal a pact with another former prime minister in exile, Benazir Bhutto, who has come in for criticism from some in her party, Sharif and the public for negotiating with the unpopular general.

Sharif's spokesman in Islamabad, Ahsan Iqbal, said authorities had detained more than 2,000 activists from Sharif's party in Punjab province, Sharif's political power base.

"The way the government has acted has proven our point that there is no democracy under Musharraf, there is dictatorship," Iqbal said. "Politically, they are very scared of a big show of popularity upon his arrival."

A police official said 250 "trouble makers" had been picked up. A small convoy of Sharif supporters drove around Rawalpindi city, near Islamabad's airport, on Sunday waving party flags but there was no trouble.

Iqbal later told reporters he was appealing to supporters to get to the airport no matter what, even if they had to break through police barricades.

Sharif is due to arrive in Islamabad on a scheduled Gulf Air flight at 11.45 a.m. (0245 EDT), a spokesman in London said.

A security high alert has been declared at Islamabad airport and on Monday it would be sealed off, with only travelers with confirmed tickets allowed in, a security official said.

The government has not said what it will do when Sharif and his politician brother, Shahbaz, land but there is speculation the brothers -- who both face charges in Pakistan -- will be arrested and perhaps deported.

"We are coming back under the clear-cut verdict of the Supreme Court which said there should be no hindrance," Sharif's spokesman in London, Nadir Chaudhri, told Dawn Television.

"It will enrage the people of Pakistan and it could lead to the further destabilization of the country," he said, when asked about the possibility Sharif might be deported.

Musharraf sent Sharif to Saudi Arabia in 2000 under what the government says was an agreement that Sharif would stay in exile for 10 years. In return, he avoided a life sentence on hijacking and corruption charges.

Pakistan says the Saudi royal family and assassinated Lebanese leader Rafik al-Hariri guaranteed the deal. Sharif said on Saturday he understood the agreement was for five years' exile.

The Supreme Court last month said Sharif had the right to return and the government should not try to stop him.

Saudi intelligence chief Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz and al-Hariri's son, Saad, met Musharraf on Saturday. Citing concern about stability, Muqrin told reporters Saudi Arabia hoped Sharif would honor the exile agreement.

Sharif hopes to lead a procession from Islamabad airport for 300 km (200 miles) to the city of Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, his hometown and the country's political nerve centre.

Reuters
Last Mod: 10 Eylül 2007, 10:15
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