Sharif due in Pak, Mus's problems mount

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Lahore (Pakistan), Nov 25: Pakistan's exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is expected to return home today to a country under emergency rule imposed by President Pervez Musharraf, the general who deposed him eight years ago. Sharif is due to land in his home town, the eastern city of Lahore, sometime between 1530-1600 IST on a flight laid on by Saudi King Abdullah from the holy city of Medina.

Sharif's son-in-law Mohammad Safdar told to the sources from Medina shortly before 1200 IST that the flight was about to take-off.

Lahore police, acting under emergency rule imposed by Musharraf, said they had arrested around 50 of Sharif's party workers overnight to forestall possible disturbances, and there were several hundred police, carrying riot shields, batons and rifles at the airport hours before Sharif was due.

''Look at all these men in black,'' said Imran Abbas Lalika, a 30-year-old marketing researcher, travelling through the airport.

''They are here just to scare people,'' he said, surveying a concourse swarming with security and with a barbed wire barrier at the international arrivals exit. ''Mainstream political leaders should be here to get rid of this general.'' The Saudi king has provided Sharif, who is travelling with his wife, Kulsoom, and politician brother and fellow exile Shahbaz Sharif, with an armour-plated Mercedes, aides said.

Mounting insecurity in Pakistan was underscored by two suicide car bomb attacks in Rawalpindi, the garrison town next to the capital Islamabad yesterday, which killed at least 15 people.

Military spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad stuck by the death toll on Sunday although some media reported it was more than 30. Two intelligence officials had told Reuters, on condition of anonymity, that it was 35.

One attack targeted a bus carrying personnel to an intelligence centre, and the other struck an army checkpoint outside the army's General Headquarters. There have been more than 25 suicide attacks since July.

Double trouble in contrast to the last time Sharif tried to return in September, when he was swiftly dispatched back into exile in Saudi Arabia, Musharraf has now given his reluctant approval, according to a senior aide to the president.

Sharif's return, just in time to file nomination papers for a January 8 parliamentary election, means the increasingly unpopular Musharraf will have to contend with two ex-premiers he has spent much of the last eight years trying to marginalise.

General Musharraf, hoping that Benazir Bhutto might become a post-election ally, allowed her back a month ago, shielded from prosecution in old graft cases she says were politically motivated. She turned increasingly confrontational in the aftermath of a suicide attack on her homecoming parade which killed at least 139 people.

As things stand, hardly anyone is expecting a free and fair election in a little over seven weeks time.

The authorities have already demonstrated their readiness to muzzle the media and detain anyone of influence speaking out against Musharraf, who imposed the emergency on November 3 to safeguard his presidency from challenges to his re-election.

Western governments fear that stifling democracy could benefit Islamist militants threatening nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Musharraf has already secured his own second five-year term, having used emergency powers to purge Supreme Court judges who might have annulled his re-election by parliament last month.

He is expected to fulfil a promise to quit as army chief and take his oath as a civilian leader in coming days.

But his next big problem is the credibility of the coming poll and whether the new parliament will be friendly or hostile.

''Musharraf is an illegal president. He destroyed the judiciary and every institution,'' Azhar Shah Hamdani, a Sharif party activist, told to sources at the airport as he waited with a dozen colleagues for their leader's homecoming.

Musharraf did not want Sharif back, but acquiesced under pressure from King Abdullah during talks in Riyadh last Tuesday.

Musharraf co-opted the rump of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League after ousting him. Confusingly there are now two PMLs, although Sharif's is usually referred to as the Nawaz League.

Leaders of the ruling PML fear many of their party might flock to the banner of Sharif, whose return is expected to reduce chances of an opposition boycott of the polls.


REUTERS
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