INTERVIEW-Pakistan's Sharif says can work with Bhutto

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 14 (Reuters) Exiled former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif said today he was ready to work with another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, against the military rule of President Pervez Musharraf.

Bhutto has been trying to forge an opposition alliance after calling on General Musharraf to give up power, and has spoken to leaders from Sharif's party about a coalition.

''We are ready to set aside our differences with the People's Party and work for the return of democratic rule,'' Sharif told Reuters by telephone from Saudi Arabia, referring to Bhutto's party.

US ally Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, plunged the nuclear-armed country into crisis on November 3 when he declared emergency rule, suspended the constitution, rounded up thousands of opponents and curbed the media.

Sharif and Bhutto lead Pakistan's two mainstream political parties.

They were bitter rivals during the late 1980s and 1990s. They both served two terms as prime minister, alternating with each other until Musharraf ousted Sharif in 1999. Bhutto had gone into self-exile earlier that year and Sharif was exiled in 2000.

Both of them faced corruption charges.

Asked whether there was any possibility of a broad opposition coalition against Musharraf, Sharif said: ''It's the need of the hour.'' ''This joint effort should be carried forward with sincerity and steadfastness. It should be focused on achieving the objectives and targets. There should be no room for flexibility and slackness.'' The two leaders were allied against Musharraf in an Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy but they fell out this year after Bhutto launched talks with Musharraf on a power-sharing deal.

''DICTATORSHIP SHOULD END'' But Bhutto, outraged by a government crackdown after Musharraf imposed emergency rule, said yesterday she had ended all dealings with the general and called on him to step down as president.

''It has been our stand throughout that we are against any extra-constitutional action and coup d'etats, and military dictatorship should end,'' Sharif said on Wednesday. ''There is no room for dictatorship in Pakistan. We don't accept this set-up.'' After invoking emergency powers, Musharraf, who is also army chief, sacked judges seen hostile to him and imposed media curbs.

Authorities detained thousand of opposition activists and lawyers protesting against emergency rule.

Many analysts say Musharraf's move was aimed at averting a ruling by the Supreme Court against his eligibility to run in an Oct. 6 presidential election by legislative assemblies dominated by his supporters, which he easily won.

Sharif said the opposition should focus on getting the judges Musharraf dismissed reinstated.

''The top priority should be the restoration of judiciary ... all other issues will be solved if judiciary is restored.

Sharif returned to Pakistan in September, after the Supreme Court said he had the right to come back from exile, but Musharraf had him detained and quickly bundled onto a flight to Saudi Arabia.

REUTERS ARB RN1810

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