Former PM Sharif returns to Pakistan
By SLOBODAN LEKIC, Associated Press Writer 58 minutes
LAHORE, Pakistan - Exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz
Sharif returned home to a hero's welcome Sunday and
called on President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to end
emergency rule before elections, a fresh challenge to
the U.S.-backed leader.
"These (emergency) conditions are not conducive to
free and fair elections," Sharif told reporters at the
airport after arriving from Saudi Arabia. "I think the
constitution of Pakistan should be restored, and there
should be rule of law."
Sharif, the head of one of the country's main
opposition parties, said he had not negotiated his
return with Musharraf, who overthrew him in a 1999
coup, and expelled him when he first tried come back
to Pakistan this year.
"My return is not the result of any deal," Sharif told
reporters. "My life and death are for Pakistan."
Thousands of frenzied supporters pushed past police
barricades into the airport in this eastern city,
carrying Sharif and his brother on their shoulders and
cheering wildly as Sharif stood among them on a raised
platform. An armored car carrying Sharif left the
airport on a procession toward a shrine in the center
of the city, surrounded by screaming supporters.
Musharraf has grown increasingly unpopular since he
declared a state of emergency on Nov. 3, locking up
thousands of opponents, purging the Supreme Court and
muzzling the media.
If Sharif and other opposition parties refuse to take
part in parliamentary elections slated for January, it
would undermine Musharraf's claim to be taking the
country back toward democracy. Equally tricky for
Musharraf would be an alliance between Sharif and
another recently returned prime minister, Benazir
The deadline to file nomination papers for the Jan. 8
vote is Monday, but Sharif did not say whether he
would do so.
The scene at Lahore airport was eerily reminiscent of
the early jubilation that greeted Bhutto when she came
back to her home city of Karachi in October, but the
number of supporters was far lower. Bhutto's return
was greeted by a massive suicide bomb which killed
about 150 people in a procession through the streets.
In a reminder that Pakistan remains under emergency
rule, security forces had rounded up some Sharif
activists and attempted to seal off the airport.
But the supporters who found their way through tight
security swarmed into the terminal building waving the
green flag of his party and shouting slogans including
"Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif!" and "Go, Musharraf,
Police lifted batons to drive them back from the
arrival area, but had no space to swing them amid the
dancing, jubilant crowds.
Television footage showed Sharif, dressed in his
trademark white shirt and a dark waistcoat, on an
airport stairwell next to his brother, also a
politician, and surrounded by security officials,
waving to the cameras.
Tight security that had surrounded Sharif after his
plane touched down appeared to melt away amid the
Both Bhutto and Sharif have been seeking to return to
power after the parliamentary elections. But the
ballot, which the West hopes will produce a moderate
government able to stand up to Islamic extremism, has
been thrown into confusion by Musharraf's seizure of
Major opposition parties including Bhutto's Pakistan
People's Party have been lining up to take part in
the elections with preliminary steps such as filing
Bhutto said Friday she had not yet decided whether to
participate. On Saturday, a loose coalition of
opposition groups including Sharif's party announced
it would boycott the election unless the government
lifts the state of emergency, restores sacked Supreme
Court justices and releases all political prisoners
within four days.
Sharif indicated his party, the Pakistan Muslim
League-N, would demand a restoration of constitutional
rule before it took part in the vote, but that any
decision on whether to boycott would be taken in
conjunction with other groups.
Sharif has been angling for a return ever since
Musharraf overthrew him and gave the jailed politician
a choice: accept 10 years of exile or face life in
prison on charges including hijacking and terrorism.
The charges stemmed from Sharif's desperate attempts
to turn away a packed civilian plane carrying
Musharraf then the army chief back from a trip
As the Pakistan International Airways plane ran low on
fuel, Musharraf used the cockpit radio to contact his
senior commanders on the ground, who quickly took over
the country. By the time the plane touched down in the
southern city of Karachi, Musharraf was Pakistan's new
leader and Sharif was under arrest.
In September Sharif boarded a flight from London to
Islamabad, but police in the Pakistani capital swiftly
sent him back to Saudi Arabia.
This time, the Saudi leadership reportedly pressured
Pakistan to accept him. Saudi King Abdullah provided
the plane that carried Sharif home.
Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for Sharif's party, said some
1,800 activists were detained in a crackdown ahead of
the former premier's return.
However, federal Information Minister Nisar Memon said
he was exaggerating.
"There are no arrests as such," Memon said. "About 100
people have been confined so that they do not create
any issues. We don't want the same mess as there was
Authorities issued no warnings that Islamic militants
bitterly opposed to Musharraf and Bhutto for their
pro-U.S. police might target the religiously
However, his arrival came one day after suicide
bombers killed up to 35 people in nearly simultaneous
blasts at the heart of Pakistan's security
establishment in Rawalpindi, a garrison city adjacent
to the capital, Islamabad.
It was not clear who was behind the explosions which
targeted a bus carrying intelligence agency workers
and a checkpoint near army headquarters but
authorities said suspicion rested on Islamist
militants who are fighting an increasingly bloody
insurgency against government troops in the northwest
of the country.
The army said Sunday that 30 pro-Taliban fighters and
one Pakistani soldier died in an operation to capture
militant positions in the Swat valley, a former
tourist destination just 100 miles from Islamabad.
Musharraf cited rising religious extremism as a reason
for declaration a state of emergency. However, many of
those targeted under the crackdown have been political
opponents, lawyers and members of the media.
More than 5,500 people have been detained since the
crackdown began, but authorities insist virtually all
have been freed since last weekend, when visiting U.S.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte urged
Musharraf to restore the constitution.
Associated Press writers Sadaqat Jan and Paul Haven in
Islamabad and Abdullah Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,
contributed to this report.