LAHORE, Pakistan, Nov 25 (Reuters) Pakistan police detained thousands of supporters of Nawaz Sharif to stop them greeting the former prime minister on his return from exile in Saudi Arabia today, according to party loyalists.
US ally President Pervez Musharraf imposed emergency rule on November 3 to safeguard his own presidency, but under pressure from Saudi King Abdullah reluctantly acquiesced to the return of Sharif, the leader he deposed in a bloodless coup eight years ago.
''There will be no hurdle in his return this time because he's not returning without an understanding,'' a senior government official said.
Sharif's aides say there is no deal between the two old foes in the run up to a parliamentary election due on January 8.
Understanding or not, police detained activists from Sharif's party, known as the Nawaz League, before they could come out to welcome him, party officials and police said.
''They have arrested hundreds more people this morning, it must be more than 3,000 more,'' said Ahsan Iqbal, a party spokesman.
Western governments fear that stifling democracy could benefit Islamist militants threatening nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Sharif is due to land in his home town, the eastern city of Lahore, sometime between 1530-1630 IST on a flight laid on by Saudi King Abdullah from the holy city of Medina.
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, 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 attacks in Rawalpindi, the garrison town next to the capital Islamabad, on Saturday. The attacks 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 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 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 after a suicide attack on her homecoming parade which killed at least 139 people.
Resigned to Sharif's coming back, Musharraf hopes the former prime minister's party will take part in the election, so the vote's already questionable credibility will not be further diminished by an opposition boycott, according to a presidential aide.
As things stand, hardly anyone expects a free and fair election in a little over seven weeks time.
The authorities have 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.
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 quit as army chief and take his oath as a civilian leader in coming days. His next big problem is whether the new parliament will be friendly or hostile.
Musharraf co-opted the rump of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League after ousting him. Leaders of the ruling PML fear many of their party might defect to Sharif's camp.
REUTERS SZ AS1448