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Exiled Pakistan leaders agree on common front

Written by: Staff

LONDON, May 15: Pakistani former Prime Ministers' Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, now in exile, pledged to work more closely together by signing what they called a ''charter of democracy'' in London.

It was the latest sign of the increasing cooperation between the once bitter rivals ahead of general elections due next year, although Sharif yesterday said the opposition should take part in the polls only if they are held under a neutral caretaker government.

''This is a historic moment,'' Bhutto said at the signing ceremony yesterday. ''We believe that the task ahead for Pakistan is a gigantic one ... It is very important for us to work together.'' The government of President Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in 1999 in a bloodless military coup when he overthrew Sharif, has already dismissed the growing alliance between Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party and Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League as irrelevant. It has accused both of corruption -- allegations they deny.

Bhutto said the charter covered topics such as how to limit the role of the military in politics and a need to ensure a clear chain of command over Pakistan's nuclear arms.

''We believe that terrorism and militancy are a direct byproduct of military dictatorship, successive military dictatorships that have subverted the popular will of the people of Pakistan,'' she said.

Both leaders have said they want to go back to Pakistan but Musharraf, widely expected to stay in office after the 2007 elections, has vowed to block that.

Analysts says the marginalisation of Bhutto and Sharif has allowed the Islamist opposition to exert greater influence in Pakistan, and an Islamist alliance forms the largest opposition grouping in parliament.

Sharif also called on the United States to stop backing Musharraf, described by U.S. President George W. Bush as a key ally in his war on terror.

''If America is preaching democracy in Iraq, if America is preaching democracy in Afghanistan, then it should also stop its policy of supporting the uniformed president of Pakistan,'' he said.

After Sharif was ousted by Musharraf he was sent to exile in Saudi Arabia, but is now in London. Having lived in self-exile since 1999, Bhutto faces graft charges in Pakistan and abroad and faces arrest if she returns home.


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