Thousands detained before Sharif return to Pakistan

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LAHORE, Pakistan, Nov 25 (Reuters) Pakistan police detained thousands of supporters of Nawaz Sharif before the former prime minister's expected 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 presidency, but, under pressure from Saudi King Abdullah, he reluctantly acquiesced to the return of Sharif, who he deposed in a bloodless coup eight years ago.

Sharif's departure from the holy city of Medina was delayed, and he was expected to arrive in his hometown Lahore around 6.30 pm (1900 hrs IST) on a flight laid on by Saudi King Abdullah.

''We want all steps taken on November 3 to be withdrawn,'' Sharif told independent Pakistani news channel ARYOne World television before departing from Medina.

Sharif plans to discuss a possible boycott of a parliamentary election set for January 8 with the other main opposition party led by Benazir Bhutto, another former premier who General Musharraf allowed back last month in the hope that she would become an ally.

In Lahore, police detained activists from Sharif's party, known as the Nawaz League, to stop them coming out to greet him.

Party spokesman Ahsan Iqbal said probably more than 3,000 had been detained, but police said the numbers were exaggerated.

Police used batons to drive out around 150 Sharif supporters who pushed their way through the airport to reach the VIP lounge.

They carried green party flags, portraits and chanted ''Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif'' and ''Go, Musharraf go''.

''Look at all these men in black,'' said Imran Abbas Lalika, a 30-year-old market researcher, referring to hundreds of police swarming around the airport, carrying riot shields, batons and rifles.

''They are here just to scare people,'' he said. ''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 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 confirmed today although some media reported it was more than 30.

Once they arrive, the Sharifs hope to visit a shrine in the city before making for the family residence on the outskirts.

Sharif was returning just in time to file nomination papers for the election in case he decides to take part.

Unpopular and politically isolated, Musharraf now has to contend with two rivals he has spent much of the last eight years trying to marginalise.

Bhutto welcomed Sharif's return but did not talk in terms of a boycott as she filed her nomination papers at her constituency in southern Sindh province.

''God willing, an election will be held and People's Party and the people will win,'' Bhutto told reporters.

Musharraf co-opted the rump of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League after ousting him. Leaders of the ruling PML fear many of their party may now defect to Sharif's camp.

Resigned to Sharif's coming back, Musharraf hopes the former prime minister's party will take part in the election, so the vote's questionable credibility will not be further diminished by an opposition boycott, according to a presidential aide.

The general secured his own second five-year term by using 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 the coming days. His next big problem is whether the new parliament will be friendly or hostile.

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

Hardly anyone expects the election to be free and fair. The authorities have already used emergency powers to muzzle the media and detain anyone influential speaking against Musharraf.


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