Pakistan's exiled former PM Sharif eyes return

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ISLAMABAD, Oct 16 (Reuters) Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif is planning to return home despite being bundled out of the country hours after trying to come back last month, a leader of his party today said.

Another former Pakistani prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, is due to return home on Thursday to lead her party in a general election due by mid-January.

Bhutto has been in negotiations on a power-sharing pact with military president Pervez Musharraf, who on October 5 promulgated an ordinance erasing corruption charges against the two-time prime minister.

But the controversial ordinance, which is being challenged in the Supreme Court, did not clear charges hanging over Sharif, whom Musharraf ousted in 1999 and sent into exile in Saudi Arabia the following year.

The government says he agreed to stay in exile for 10 years when he avoided a prison sentence and went into exile.

''He aims to return,'' said Raja Zafar-ul-Haq, chairman of Sharif's faction of the Pakistan Muslim League. ''A party meeting will held in London soon to decide on the date of Mr Sharif's return.'' Nuclear-armed Pakistan, a vital US ally in efforts to stabilise Afghanistan and fight Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda, is mired in uncertainty.

Musharraf swept an electoral college vote for a new term as president on October 6.

But his victory awaits the approval of the Supreme Court. It is considering opposition challenges to Musharraf's eligibility to run for office while army chief, even though he has promised to quit the army before being sworn in for a new term by November 15.

The court is due to resume its hearing on Wednesday.

LEGAL WRANGLES Meanwhile, Musharraf has asked that Bhutto put off her return until after the court rules on the legality of his re-election, but her party says she is due back as scheduled on Thursday.

Despite the president's request for her to delay coming back from eight-and-a-half years in self-exile, her return should be trouble free.

But the Supreme Court could upset her longer-term plans if it makes her liable to prosecution by throwing out the October 5 ordinance that erased corruption charges against her, her husband and others.

Critics say the ordinance is unfair and unconstitutional.

Sharif would add to the air of uncertainty and tension if he tried to come back again soon.

Authorities deported him on September 10 hours after he returned home from London, despite a Supreme Court ruling that he had the right to come back. Authorities said he had agreed to leave again rather than face prosecution on various charges.

But his supporters denied that and said his deportation was illegal. The court, which has been seen as hostile to Musharraf since he tried to sack its top judge in March, is considering a case against the government over the deportation.

Government officials are due to explain to the court tomorrow why Sharif was sent out on a flight to Saudi Arabia.

Another leader of Sharif's party, Javed Hashmi, today told reporters on Monday Sharif would return in November but Haq said that had not been confirmed. Sharif is in Saudi Arabia but was due to travel to London soon to plan his return, Haq said.

Reuters SS DB1250

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