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Former PM Sharif returns to Pakistan

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20071125/ap_on_re_as/pakistan Former PM Sharif returns to Pakistan By SLOBODAN LEKIC, Associated Press Writer 58 minutes ago LAHORE,
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 25, 2007
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      http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20071125/ap_on_re_as/pakistan

      Former PM Sharif returns to Pakistan

      By SLOBODAN LEKIC, Associated Press Writer 58 minutes
      ago

      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
      Bhutto.

      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,
      go!"

      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
      chaos.

      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
      emergency powers.

      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
      nomination papers.

      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
      abroad.

      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
      in Karachi."

      Authorities issued no warnings that Islamic militants
      bitterly opposed to Musharraf and Bhutto for their
      pro-U.S. police might target the religiously
      conservative Sharif.

      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.
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