Negroponte lands in Pakistani political storm clouds

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ISLAMABAD, Sep 12 (Reuters) US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte arrived in Islamabad today for talks with President Pervez Musharraf, two days after the government blocked former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's return from exile.

The summary way in which Sharif was dispatched back into exile, despite having clearance from Pakistan's Supreme Court to return, reinforced perceptions U.S. ally Musharraf's grip on power was becoming more desperate with elections looming.

''Certainly, I think it's added to the troubles that General Musharraf's regime faces,'' Benazir Bhutto, another former prime minister living in exile, told Indian news channel Times Now.

''I wouldn't like any incident being used now as a pretext to try and defer those polls,'' said Bhutto, who has been in negotiations with Musharraf to form a power sharing arrangement after a general election due by the end of the year.

Bhutto said plans for her own return to Pakistan will be announced on Friday.

Though Negroponte is here for a long-term strategic dialogue with Pakistani officials, the short-term uncertainties in Pakistan will weigh on US policy-makers' minds.

Musharraf has been seeking support from Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) to get re-elected within the next month for a second five-year term by the sitting national and provincial assemblies before they are dissolved for the parliamentary polls.

Musharraf is likely to face constitutional challenges in a Supreme Court seen as hostile to the general since his unsuccessful attempt to oust its top judge in March.

Sharif's supporters have also filed a petition with the Supreme Court saying he had been illegally deported.

US INFLUENCE Commandos bundled the man General Musharraf overthrew in a bloodless coup eight years ago onto a Saudi-bound plane hours after he arrived from London on Monday. Hundreds of Sharif's party workers were detained to prevent any mass show of support.

Sharif's nephew, Hamza Shahbaz, told Reuters he spoke to his uncle yesterday, and denied the official version that Sharif had voluntarily opted to go to Saudi Arabia after being confronted with fresh graft charges and the prospect of prison.

''He has strongly denied that he left Pakistan willingly. He was forcibly sent to Saudi Arabia,'' Shahbaz said, adding that Sharif's wife, Kulsoom, was considering returning to Pakistan in defiance of Musharraf.

As Pakistan heads into a period of uncertainty, the next few months could witness shifting alliances, constitutional crises and a showdown between Musharraf and the judiciary.

While Negroponte's visit along with Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher was scheduled well in advance, the timing inevitably raised expectations the US would exert influence to reduce instability in a nuclear armed nation battling to contain Islamist militias allied to al Qaeda.

Today, pro-Taliban militants in volatile North West Frontier Province captured 12 soldiers. They are now challenging the army's resolve by holding more than 250 troops hostage.

The United States is believed to be encouraging efforts by progressive-minded Musharraf and Bhutto, leader of Pakistan's most most liberal and single largest party, to forge an alliance to push back religious conservative forces.

Sharif's party, while mainstream, is more conservative.

''I am looking for Washington to support the restoration of democracy in Pakistan and I have welcomed the statements that the United States has been giving for democracy,'' Bhutto said.

REUTERS SG BD1453

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