Pakistanis think Saudi-bound Musharraf to meet Sharif

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 20 (Reuters) Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf left for Saudi Arabia today leaving a trail of speculation that he was on a mission to end his political isolation at home by reaching out to arch foe Nawaz Sharif.

Musharraf has been under pressure from the opposition, the United States and other Western governments to revoke the emergency he announced on Nov. 3 and ensure elections in January are held under free and fair conditions.

''It looks like General Musharraf is trying hard to open channels with Sharif,'' Shafqat Mahmood, a former minister turned analyst, remarked on the sudden two-day visit.

Sharif, a former prime minister deposed by Musharraf eight years ago in a coup, is living in exile in Saudi Arabia.

''He's been never more weak than now. He's been condemned internationally, locally, civil society, everybody is after him,'' Mahmood said.

Western governments fear that stifling democracy any longer could play into the hands of Islamist militants who are already a dangerous influence in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

But they have also stopped well short of threatening any measures that could destabilise a moderate Muslim leader who has been crucial to fighting al Qaeda.

The Election Commission announced today parliamentary polls will be held on Jan 8, the date chosen by Musharraf, but the unpopular military leader has been warned the election will lack credibility if the emergency remains in place.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court, packed with government friendly judges, struck down five challenges to Musharraf's re-election last month, and the last one will be heard on Thursday.

Once the court clears the way, Musharraf has promised to step down as army chief and be sworn in as a civilian president.

Musharraf is widely believed to have declared the emergency in order to purge the court of judges who might have annulled the re-election -- and a key demand of Sharif is for the restoration of the judiciary.

In a sign the emergency may be relaxing, police today released several hundred people rounded up in the past few weeks in the Sindh and Baluchistan provinces. Hundreds more are still in custody, however.

CASTING ROUND FOR SUPPORT Sharif told Reuters from the western Saudi city of Jeddah yesterday he would not meet Musharraf unless the emergency was rolled back.

Many Pakistanis regarded that as a smokescreen for some some kind of communication, if not a face-to-face meeting.

''It is only logical that they will have indirect contact,'' said Nasim Zehra, an independent political analyst.

Zehra believes Musharraf has begun retracing some of his steps since the emergency sparked international outrage and isolation at home, and argues that re-engaging former foes made sense.

Musharraf was due to spend five hours in Riyadh before going to Jeddah on the west coast to perform a pilgrimage to Mecca, the holy city of Islam.

Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times and another leading analyst, took a contrary view, believing that Musharraf's intention was to plead with the Saudi authorities to guarantee Sharif's exile there until at least after the election.

The uncertainty was reflected on the Karachi stock market index, which though flat today, was nearly five percent below its pre-emergency levels and 11 per cent off life highs, while still 32 per cent up since the start of the year.

Sharif has remained in Jeddah since he was put on a flight to Saudia Arabia in September after Pakistani authorities blocked his attempted return from exile despite clearance from the Supreme Court to come home.

''I can't imagine Musharraf meeting Nawaz Sharif,'' said Sethi, who believes that the president's best bet of shoring up support after elections hangs on some understanding with Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party.

Sharif told Reuters there had been several approaches from Musharraf's camp for a meeting in Saudia Arabia in the past 2-{ months, but he had rebuffed them all.

Prospects for an alliance between Musharraf and Bhutto fell apart, to Washington's chagrin, in the wake of the imposition of the emergency, but a deal could still be revived.

''If Musharraf can reach out to Benazir why can't he reach out to Nawaz Sharif. He is an equally important national leader,'' Aamir Reza, employee of a mobile telephone operator in Rawalpindi near Islamabad. ''It will be good for Pakistani politics.'' REUTERS PD ND1438

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