Nawaz Sharif's return on cards

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Islamabad, Nov 23 (UNI) With a sudden change of heart on the part of the ruling Saudi family, Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may be allowed to return to Pakistan this month.

But even before he is given permission to leave Saudi Arabia, a new formula has been evolved through back-channel diplomacy under which Mr Sharif's wife Kulsoom Nawaz and brother Shahbaz may return earlier, possibly by Sunday, to file their nomination papers for the coming general election, Dawn newspaper reported.

The paper quoted highly placed sources that are privy to some of the negotiations and are following the rapidly changing situation.

They told Dawn that if this formula came through, Mr Sharif might delay his return, and arrive in Pakistan after November 26, which would be his way of avoiding participation in the January 8 elections.

Mr Sharif was expected to travel to Pakistan via London early next week, but things have moved so fast over the last 24 hours that he is now likely to go back home straight from Saudi Arabia, Nadir Chaudhry, a spokesman for the PML-N leader in London said.

He denied that President Pervez Musharraf had allowed Mr Sharif to return home on the condition that he would not boycott the forthcoming elections.

On the contrary, Nadir said, Gen Musharraf tried to persuade King Abdullah against allowing Mr Sharif to go back home before the completion of the ''10-year exile deal'' he had signed with the Saudi authorities in 2000.

Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for the PML-N, refused to be drawn on the specifics of any of these developments, but admitted that all these options were possible.

He said that Mr Sharif might return by Sunday, and there was also a possibility that his wife and brother end their exile in the first phase, and the former Prime Minister returns later.

''In any case'', he said, ''we have called a meeting of the party's central executive committee in Islamabad on Sunday, and are pretty confident that it will be attended by the leadership that has so far remained in exile.'' Although equally vague on the specifics, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the head of the pro-Musharraf PML-Q, said that if Mr Sharif returns to Pakistan before the elections, it would be a result of a ''deal'' with the Saudi government, and that his party would welcome the development.

He said the party was prepared to take on all such challenges.

''We are not afraid of him,'' he said.

The dramatic development, said a highly placed source in the government, came after Gen Musharraf's meeting with the Saudi king two days ago.

Although details of the meeting were not made public, sources in the Pakistan government said Gen Musharraf was politely told by the Saudi authorities that after former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's return, it was ''extremely difficult to hold back'' another former Prime Minister.

Once the thinking of the Saudi government became clear to officials here, they resolved to dilute the effect of such a major change in the political atmosphere in the run-up to the elections.

According to one such source, high-level contacts at the international level led to an understanding that Mr Sharif will start toning down his rhetoric, and in the first phase would only send his wife and brother.

The two would be allowed to submit their nomination papers on an assurance that Mr Sharif will return only after November 26-- the last day for filing nominations papers-- and will not stand in the elections.

Although nomination papers for the Sharif brothers and Ms Nawaz had already been obtained for three different constituencies in Lahore, a leader of the PML-N said, the party was open to the idea of filing papers for one or two of these leaders.

Sources in the PML-N, as well as some influential members of the PML-Q, think that a lot depended on the outcome of today's meeting between Mr Sharif and the Saudi king in Riyadh. ''Till that time the situation would remain fluid,'' said one member of the PML-Q.

Although Mr Sharif's return is being regarded as one of the biggest challenges faced so far by Gen Musharraf and his allies, some sources said it would increase the credibility of the general election.

UNI

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