Fri, Sep 14, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Pakistan frees opposition workers

AP , ISLAMABAD

Pakistan's president ordered authorities to free hundreds of opposition party workers detained during former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's abortive attempt to return from exile, state media said.

Provincial authorities have started releasing about 1,000 Sharif supporters rounded up in the days before his attempt to return from exile, Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier Javed Iqbal Cheema said yesterday.

Sharif's party claims about 5,000 were detained.

President General Pervez Musharraf directed officials to release opposition activists in time for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) said late on Wednesday.

The president "wished every Pakistani to observe Ramadan with due solemnity and in true spirit of tolerance and forbearance," APP quoted a presidential spokesman as saying. Ramadan begins today in Pakistan.

Sharif's supporters were rounded up to prevent them from giving the former prime minister a rousing welcome at Islamabad airport. He flew in from London on Monday after seven years in exile, hoping to upset Musharraf's re-election plans. But he was quickly deported to Saudi Arabia.

The releases are unlikely to soften opposition calls for Musharraf, who toppled Sharif's government in a 1999 coup and became a key US ally after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, to step down and restore civilian rule.

Sharif's party has already challenged his expulsion before the Supreme Court, which last month ruled that he had an "inalienable" right to return.

Pakistani media commentators say the move bared the authoritarian nature of Musharraf's rule.

However, the president has removed a key political rival who had vowed to upset his plans to ask lawmakers to give him a new five-year term by the middle of next month.

It could also allow Musharraf to focus on driving a hard bargain in talks with Benazir Bhutto, another exiled prime minister itching for a comeback, which could lead to them sharing power.

An agreement could help Musharraf clear legal hurdles to his continued rule and quash the corruption cases that persuaded Bhutto to leave the country in 1999.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, his Cabinet ministers and allied parties have repeatedly voiced their support for Musharraf to seek another term.

"All coalition partners present in the Cabinet said that the re-election of the president is essential for the country's stability, security and growth," according to an official statement issued after Aziz met with ministers on Wednesday.

Musharraf has also been under international pressure to strengthen its efforts against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants operating along the Afghan border.

However, he got a boost on Wednesday when visiting US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte heaped praise on his government's anti-terrorism effort.

"There is no doubt whatsoever of Pakistan's commitment to restoring and establishing security in that part of the country and more than doing its share in the war against terror," Negroponte said.

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