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Pakistan's Sharif says he'll return home Sept. 10 to challenge Musharraf

Pakistan's Sharif says he'll return home Sept. 10 to challenge Musharraf

An embittered former prime minister promised to return to Pakistan next month to fight what he called a battle against dictatorship and thwart President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's bid to extend his rule.
Nawaz Sharif's comeback would set up a three-cornered fight for power, also involving rival ex-premier Benazir Bhutto, in a front-line state for the war against terrorism.
Sharif vowed Thursday to return on Sept. 10 after seven years in exile to formally start his campaign to oust the military leader.
"The battle lines in Pakistan are clearly drawn: on one side you have the people loyal to democracy ... on the other side are the forces of a dying dictatorship," Sharif told a packed news conference at a west London hotel.
Sharif condemned an agreement that Benazir Bhutto, another exiled former premier, said she was close to finalizing with Musharraf that could see them share power. Bhutto has said she will return by December.
Bhutto claimed Musharraf had agreed to step down as head of the army, ending military rule eight years after the general ousted Sharif in a bloodless coup. Musharraf, however, said Thursday he had made no such decision.
Sharif said he would lead lawmakers in opposing any agreement that prolongs Musharraf's regime.
"Musharraf's uniform is not an issue. The real issue is his illegitimate rule," Sharif said. "This man Musharraf is on his way out. No one should try to rescue him."
The Supreme Court ruled last week that the conservative, secularist Sharif, who has been in exile since 2000, and his politician brother could return to Pakistan.
However, Pakistani government officials have said that Sharif, who insists Musharraf must be removed from both the government and the army, could be re-arrested upon reaching Pakistani soil on charges dating to the 1999 coup.
Sharif said he was not afraid of Musharraf's government trying to imprison him again, adding that, in jail, he might become a powerful symbol for the country's opposition.
"I will go to Pakistan. I will launch my struggle, irrespective of if he arrests me or doesn't ... We are not scared of what will happen to us _ we have seen enough of it," he said.
The former prime minister plans to fly to Islamabad shortly before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, accompanied by senior members of his party and a contingent of mostly foreign journalists. From there, he plans to travel by road to his power base in the east, Lahore.
In downtown Lahore, dozens of Sharif supporters danced and distributed candies to celebrate his announced return. Activists earlier paraded a chained lion _ one of his political symbols _ and chanted "Go, Musharraf, go!"
In comments aired Thursday evening but recorded earlier, Musharraf said he was "confident that we will be able to maintain political stability."
"My election and the election for the National Assembly must be held on time, and there should be no disturbance," he said on state-owned Pakistan Television.
But he also alluded to his emergency powers.
"Martial law or emergency are not the future of Pakistan, but Pakistan comes first," Musharraf said.
Musharraf had vowed to prevent both Bhutto and Sharif from entering Pakistan again, blaming them for corruption and economic problems that nearly bankrupted the country in the 1990s, when each had two turns as prime minister.
But with his support eroding, Musharraf has edged toward an alliance with Bhutto and her moderate Pakistan People's Party so he can be re-elected as a strong civilian president backed by a friendly parliament.
Under the proposed pact, the government would drop corruption cases against Bhutto to allow her to return home and abolish regulations that prevent her from serving a third term as prime minister.
But Sharif's return could trigger political turmoil and upset their calculations.
Sharif controls one of the three main political groupings gearing up for year-end parliamentary elections.
A coalition of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q could emerge victorious.
However, Sharif's PML-N would form the core of an antagonistic opposition bloc able to mobilize sizable street protests.
Sharif had poor relations with Washington when in office in the 1980s _ he authorized Pakistan's first nuclear tests in 1998 _ and is now aligned with Islamist parties who accuse Musharraf of betraying Pakistan's national interests for turning against the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.
While Bhutto has said that the confidence Musharraf enjoys in the international community and the Pakistan army makes him a factor for stability, Sharif has denounced him as a dictator who has led Pakistan into crisis.


Updated : 2021-04-13 21:43 GMT+08:00