Sharif’s ally Hussain elected Pakistani president; Taliban free 250 in jailbreak

Reuters and AFP, ISLAMABAD and PESHAWAR, Pakistan

Wed, Jul 31, 2013 - Page 1

Mamnoon Hussain, a veteran Pakistani politician and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s trusted ally, was elected president yesterday in a vote by legislators for the largely ceremonial post of head of state.

Hussain, 73, will be sworn in on Sept. 9 at the presidential palace due to be vacated by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who is stepping down at the end of his five-year term.

Ousted in a bloodless coup in 1999, Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party swept back into power in a May vote that marked the first transition between civilian governments in a country ruled by the military for more than half its history.

The new president was elected by an electoral college made up of members of the two houses of parliament and assemblies in Pakistan’s four provinces.

Given its dominance in parliament, the PML-N was guaranteed a walkover even before the main opposition party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), announced it was boycotting the vote to protest against a change in the election schedule.

Hussain won easily in the provinces of Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan, and received 41 out of 110 votes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He won 277 out of 311 votes in the upper and lower houses of parliament, emerging as the clear winner.

Hussain, who will be president for five years, resigned his membership of the PML-N soon after the election results were announced, in what is seen as a symbolic move to establish himself as a non-partisan president.

Hussain has been an active member of the PML-N since the 1960s. He was governor of the southern province of Sindh from June to October 1999 when Sharif’s government was overthrown by the then-army commander, General Pervez Musharraf.

In other news, dozens of heavily armed Taliban fighters freed nearly 250 prisoners, including hardcore militants, during a sophisticated overnight attack on a Pakistani jail that killed 13 people, officials said yesterday.

Armed with guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and bombs, the Taliban bombarded the prison in the town of Dera Ismail Khan before escaping with scores of inmates after a three-hour shootout.

The attack by well-trained gunmen, disguised in police uniforms, has heightened concerns about the ability of the Taliban to operate with impunity in parts of the nuclear-armed state.

At least 248 prisoners escaped, of whom six were later rearrested, senior government official Mushtaq Jadoon told ARY television, describing about 30 of them as “hardcore militants.”

Malik Qasim, prisons adviser to the chief minister of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, confirmed that 248 had escaped.

The Central Prison in Dera Ismail Khan can hold up to 5,000 inmates and about 300 were being held in connection with attacks on security forces and sectarian killings.

However, it was not clear how many were present during the assault, which began late on Monday and ended early yesterday.

The city in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province is close to Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal belt bordering Afghanistan where Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked insurgents are most active.

The chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pervez Khattak, a member of cricket star Imran Khan’s party that advocates peace talks with the Taliban, branded the latest attack a failure of intelligence agencies.

The Pakistani Taliban, which has led a domestic insurgency since 2007 killing thousands of people, claimed responsibility.

“Some 150 Taliban, including 60 suicide bombers, attacked the Central Prison and managed to free about 300 prisoners,” Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said by telephone.