On another front threatening the future of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the army said 60 soldiers and 250 fighters had died in a month of bloody fighting near the Afghan border.
And Benazir Bhutto, another banished former prime minister itching for a comeback, suggested talks had stalled on a power-sharing deal for Musharraf to stay on as a civilian president. "We haven't reached an agreement yet, so I'm not in a position to tell you where the negotiations are heading," she told Dawn News television.
Pakistan, once firmly under Musharraf's control, is in the grip of political uncertainty less than two months before the U.S.-allied general plans to ask lawmakers for a new five-year term.
The country's third period of direct military rule in its 60-year history began when Musharraf ousted Sharif in 1999 for trying to fire him as army chief and sent Sharif into exile in Saudi Arabia.
But Pakistan's emboldened Supreme Court, which recently quashed Musharraf's attempt to fire its chief justice and is expected to consider whether he can legally extend his rule, decided Thursday that Sharif was free to return.
His political survival clouded by his waning authority, Musharraf has begun talking of the need to forget the past and for moderates to unite to defeat extremism.
But officials are suggesting Sharif could be jailed again on his return and Sharif's party on Friday maintained its belligerent tone.
"There is no chance for any reconciliation" with Musharraf, Sadique al-Farooq, a senior leader of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party told The Associated Press. "It is out of question. ... Democracy and dictatorship cannot go together," he said.
Both Sharif's party and Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party expect to make gains in parliamentary and provincial elections that are due by January.
Before that, Musharraf plans to secure a new presidential term from lawmakers in the outgoing assemblies, where his shaky coalition holds a majority.
Bhutto, who fled in 1999 from corruption charges, has held out the possibility that Musharraf could seek re-endorsement from the new Parliament — and that her party would back him if he gives up his army post and waters down the presidency's sweeping powers.
Her party shares Musharraf's secular, socially liberal outlook and says it is negotiating a "facilitated return" to democracy with the unpopular general to avoid political chaos.
But with talks stalled, Bhutto said her party could still join Sharif and his supporters in a powerful anti-military alliance.
"We have left the doors of our alliance open" to Sharif's party, she said.
"The uniform blurs the distinction between democratic government and military rule," Bhutto added.
Like Sharif, she left open when exactly she would return.
Bhutto and Sharif as well as Pakistani commentators have been urging the United States, which has bankrolled Musharraf's Pakistan with billions of dollars, to live up to its democratic ideals and press for an immediate return to full civilian rule.
"If the polls are to have any credibility, it is essential that all political parties and their leaders should be allowed to participate," The Dawn newspaper said in an editorial Friday.
Musharraf insists elections will go ahead despite swirling speculation that he could impose a state of emergency and postpone the balloting for a year. Earlier this month, he backed away from a state of emergency after widespread criticism that it would be seen as a power grab motivated by political troubles.
Stoking concern that the army could slam on the brakes is a wave of violence in parts of the northwest, where U.S. officials worry al-Qaida is regrouping and perhaps planning a 9/11-style attack.
Musharraf sent thousands more troops into the remote region in July, sparking bloody clashes with Taliban fighters and their sympathizers.
"In the past one month, we lost about 60 soldiers in suicide and other attacks," Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad, a military spokesman, told the AP. Security forces killed about 250 fighters in the same period.
On Saturday, officials said that a group of pro-Taliban fighters kidnapped an army officer, two of his guards and a government official as they were standing near their base in northwestern Pakistan. The incident happened late Friday in Ladha, a town in troubled South Waziristan tribal region. No one claimed responsibility for the kidnappings.
Insecurity and government controls have put the border region virtually out of bounds to reporters, and Arshad's claims could not be verified.
The fighting has been particularly intense in the North Waziristan tribal region, where fighters pulled out of a September peace deal that U.S. critics said allowed extremists to take control.
On Friday, a suicide car bomb, a roadside blast and a rocket attack in North Waziristan killed six soldiers and wounded 19 others, security officials said.
Last Mod: 25 Ağustos 2007, 15:48