Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif arrived home yesterday after years in exile, the latest heavyweight to join Pakistan's deepening power struggle.
In a reminder of the emergency rule imposed by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, security forces rounded up Sharif's supporters and sealed off the airport in his home city of Lahore.
Sharif and a large contingent of family members arrived on a flight from Riyadh, Suadi Arabia, an airport official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The plane was provided by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, where Sharif has spent most of the past eight years since Musharraf overthrew him in 1999.
Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for Sharif's party, said some 1,800 activists had been detained in a crackdown since late Saturday in the eastern Punjab Province, of which Lahore is the capital.
However, Information Minister Nisar Memon said that he was exaggerating.
"There are no arrests as such," Memon said. "About 100 people have been confined so that they do not create any issues. We don't want the same mess as there was in Karachi."
He was referring to the huge rally that greeted another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, when she was allowed to return to Pakistan last month. Her homecoming procession was torn apart by a suicide bombing that killed about 150 people.
Bhutto and Sharif are vying to return to power in the Jan. 8 parliamentary elections. But the ballot, which the West hopes will produce a moderate government able to stand up to Islamic extremism, has been thrown into confusion by Musharraf's Nov. 3 seizure of extraordinary powers.
The president has used the emergency to pack the Supreme Court with sympathetic judges who then dismissed all legal challenges to him continuing as president. Musharraf is expected to step down as army chief and govern as a civilian within days.
But he has so far resisted pressure to lift the emergency by Western governments who say it will sap the legitimacy of the elections.
Police said they had 5,000 officers at the airport and along the route into Lahore, where Sharif's party said he planned to visit a shrine and address supporters before heading out to his country estate.
A black armored Mercedes limousine, also supplied by King Abdullah, was waiting for Sharif at the airport, where metal and barbed-wire barriers blocked all approach roads.
Authorities have issued no warning that Sharif, a secular conservative politician who enjoys good relations with Pakistan's religious parties, could be targeted by militants.
Aftab Cheema, a senior Lahore police official, said Sharif supporters were barred from the airport but would be allowed to greet him in the city.
By mid-afternoon, some 200 Sharif supporters had gathered outside a fence about 300m from the terminal, waving pictures of Sharif and shouting slogans including "Musharraf is a dog in uniform."
Hundreds more had gathered along the route, where loudspeakers mounted on trucks were blaring out patriotic songs.
Sharif has been angling for a return ever since. In September he boarded a flight from London to Islamabad, but police in the Pakistani capital swiftly booted him back to Saudi Arabia.
This time the outcome is likely to be different, with the Saudi leadership reportedly pressuring Pakistan to accept him.