Reuters : Former PM Sharif returns from exile to Pakistan

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Former PM Sharif returns from exile to Pakistan

By Simon Gardner | November 25, 2007

LAHORE, Pakistan, Nov 25 (Reuters) - Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif returned from exile in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, coming back to a country under emergency rule imposed by President Pervez Musharraf.

He said he was determined to rid the country of dictatorship.

"We want democracy and nothing else," Sharif told the BBC by telephone on arriving back in his hometown Lahore from the Saudi city of Medina. "I am here to play my role and also make my own efforts to rid the country of dictatorship."

U.S. ally Musharraf imposed emergency rule on Nov. 3 to safeguard his presidency, but, under pressure from Saudi's King Abdullah, he reluctantly acquiesced to Sharif's return.

Musharraf deposed Sharif in a bloodless coup eight years ago.

Sharif will lead his party in a Jan. 8 general election, if he decides against boycotting a poll that most people doubt will be either free or fair.

Khalid Maqbool, governor of central Punjab province, described Sharif's return to his hometown as a step toward national reconciliation after the bloodless 1999 coup.

"We think this is a very positive development," Maqbool told Dawn News, an independent Pakistani news channel, minutes after Sharif's plane touched down.

Sharif, accompanied by his wife Kulsoom and politician brother and fellow exile Shahbaz Sharif, arrived on a jet provided by the Saudi monarch.

Hundreds of people managed to breach the security cordon at the airport to welcome them home, although police carrying riot shields, batons and rifles had been deployed.

Pakistan police detained thousands of supporters of Sharif prior to his arrival from Medina, according to party loyalists.

"We want all steps taken on Nov. 3 to be withdrawn," Sharif told independent Pakistani news channel ARYOne World television before departing.

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

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.

(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider in Lahore and Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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