Sharif says had no contact with Musharraf in Saudi

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 21 (Reuters) Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf during his visit to Saudi Arabia made no attempt to contact exiled opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister told Reuters today.

''This time no one contacted me,'' said Sharif, who Musharraf deposed in 1999 and has sought to marginalise during a period of intense political uncertainty in Pakistan that climaxed with the imposition of emergency rule on Nov. 3.

Musharraf allowed Benazir Bhutto, the other major opposition leader, to return to Pakistan in October shielded from prosecution in old graft cases in the hope that she would lend him some support as his popularity ratings fell.

Speaking from the Saudi port city of Jeddah, Sharif said General Musharraf's go-betweens had made several attempts to arrange a meeting in recent months, and they had been in contact a few days ago.

Sharif said he had been tending to his mother, who had been admitted to hospital for surgery, but had heard nothing from Musharraf's aides during the president's visit to the kingdom.

Musharraf spent less than 24 hours there, meeting King Abdullah and other Saudi officials including intelligence chief Murqin bin Abdul-Aziz. He made a fleeting pilgrimage to Mecca before coming home today morning.

Lieutenant General Nadeem Taj, head of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, Pakistan's premier spy agency, had accompanied Musharraf.

WHIRLWIND OF SPECULATION The visit, announced at short notice, set off a whirlwind of speculation that Musharraf intended either to reach out to Sharif, or request the Saudi authorities to prolong his exile.

Sharif said he had no idea whether he had featured in discussions between Musharraf and the Saudi authorities.

''Perhaps things will be clearer in a day or two,'' Sharif said.

''Pray that I can come back to Pakistan. I want to come back to my country.

The Saudi intelligence chief had visited Islamabad in September, days before Sharif tried to return to Pakistan only to be put on a flight back to exile in Jeddah.

Diplomats say Saudi Arabia is embarrassed by its complicity in Sharif's exile and would like the situation resolved.

Sharif rebuffed all of Musharraf's earlier attempts to engage him. The last time the two men spoke was when Musharraf telephoned to express his condolences on the death of Sharif's father in 2004.

After ousting Sharif from power, Musharraf co-opted what was left of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League to create his own political support base.

Sharif's return could test the loyalty of PML politicians, and split the vote in a parliamentary election set for Jan. 8.

The former prime minister has said he could not countenance a meeting with Musharraf until the emergency was revoked, detainees were released and sacked Supreme Court judges reinstated.

The last point is probably a deal-breaker. One of the main reasons Musharraf assumed emergency powers was to purge the Supreme Court of judges he thought were about to annul his Oct.

6 re-election by parliament.

Reuters RSA RS2053

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