Tue, Aug 21, 2007 - Page 4 News List

Pakistani PM downplays Musharraf-Bhutto agreement

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ISLAMABAD

Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has played down the discussions between President Pervez Musharraf and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in an interview on Sunday. Aziz said any power-sharing deal would depend on the results of general elections later this year rather than on any previous agreement.

Aziz also spurned US involvement in negotiating the deal, saying it could hurt the parties involved.

US officials have said the deal is a way to unite and strengthen the moderate forces in Pakistan.

"With due respect, it is for the people of Pakistan who would decide who gets elected," Aziz said. "Naturally, what these contacts result in, in terms of the impact on elections or post-elections is premature to say," he said in an interview at his official hillside mansion above the capital.

The deal between Bhutto and Musharraf, which has been widely reported but so far denied by both sides, envisages Bhutto returning home to run in the next general election and serving as prime minister under Musharraf as president.

The agreement would allow Musharraf, whose popularity is falling, to continue for another term as president and would allow Bhutto, who faces several corruption cases, to return to Pakistan and have the cases dropped. But both have encountered opposition to the agreement from within their own parties.

"Friendly countries are entitled to their views, and we listen to them, but at the end of the day, Pakistanis are a very proud people and they want to manage things themselves," said Aziz, who plans to stand for re-election. "These discussions are driven by local political considerations; the moment other considerations creep in, it hurts all the stakeholders."

Other Pakistani officials have gone further, complaining that comments from the US amount to interference in Pakistan's affairs.

Aziz said the government was committed to holding free and fair elections and that only pending court cases were preventing Bhutto and another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, from returning home to take part in elections.

"There are a host of legal cases against both," he said. "They have to consult their legal counsel and decide what is best for them, but the circumstances for each of them are driven by their legal situation."

He said Bhutto was free to return, but that Sharif, who was forced out of power when Musharraf seized power in a coup in 1999, had entered an understanding with the government to go abroad in return for having charges against him dropped.

Musharraf, who is president and chief of the army, is expected to run for re-election as president between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15. Parliamentary elections will be held by the end of the year, government officials have said. Musharraf may give up his post as chief of army staff at the end of the year when a constitutional amendment allowing him to hold the two posts expires, one government official said.

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