Sun, Sep 09, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Former Pakistani PM Sharif mulls return

AP , ISLAMABAD

Pakistan's government urged exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif not to return home, saying yesterday he should honor a promise he made to stay away after being ousted from power.

Sharif has vowed to fly home from London tomorrow to counter President General Pervez Musharraf's re-election bid and run for Parliament, despite veiled threats from senior officials to put him back in jail.

Sharif was toppled in Musharraf's 1999 coup, convicted on charges of hijacking and terrorism and sentenced to life imprisonment before being released into exile in Saudi Arabia.

Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani said Sharif was allowed to leave Pakistan after he made pledges to leaders from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Lebanon not to return for 10 years.

Durrani said Sharif "should honor his word," and "should respect the commitment he had made with certain Islamic countries" to secure his release.

"He should not come [back]," Durrani said.

In a sign the government is planning a bumpy landing for Sharif, officials said on Friday that police had detained hundreds of supporters from his Pakistan Muslim League-N party in his political stronghold.

Sharif's party denounced the latest moves as politically motivated, and said they would backfire on Musharraf.

According to local media reports yesterday, former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri -- who was assassinated in a massive bombing in Beirut in February 2005 -- played a role in Sharif's release.

Hariri's son, Saad, yesterday met with Musharraf near Islamabad, and discussed the issue of Sharif's return to Pakistan, said a senior official at the president's office.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Saad briefed Musharraf about his meeting with Sharif in London this week.

According to Dawn, the English-language newspaper, Saad had suggested that Sharif's younger brother Shahbaz ``return home on Sept. 10 and Nawaz Sharif follow him after the elections,'' but Sharif rejected the offer.

Saad's visit to Pakistan comes days after a Saudi news agency quoted an unnamed official as saying that Sharif should honor his commitment not to go back to Pakistan.

Meanwhile, an anti-terrorism court in the eastern city of Lahore on Friday ordered the arrest of Shahbaz in a murder case, said Aftab Ahmed Bajwa, a lawyer for the plaintiff.

Shahbaz is charged with ordering police to kill five men who were gunned down in Lahore in 1998. At the time of the killings, Shahbaz was the chief minister, or top executive, of Punjab Province, and Nawaz was Pakistan's prime minister.

Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for Sharif's party, said on Friday the moves against the Sharifs "show complete panic in the ranks of the government."

Iqbal said more than 1,300 party supporters were arrested across Punjab in the past three days. Police in Lahore put the number at about 350.

Musharraf, a key ally in the US war on terror whose popularity has shrunk since his failed attempt to fire the country's top judge earlier this year, has repeatedly said the Sharifs must remain in exile for 10 years under the terms of a deal reached in 2000. But the Supreme Court ruled last month they were free to enter Pakistan and that their return should not be obstructed.

Thousands of Sharif supporters are planning to converge on Islamabad to welcome him, but there are expectations that authorities will try to block them, and there could be unrest. The Sharifs plan to travel to Lahore, the capital of Punjab and their power base, by road.

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