Sharif's Return to Pakistan Ends Abruptly

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan Monday after nearly seven years in exile — and within hours authorities had put him back on a plane for Saudi Arabia. The move invites more anger from a restive populace.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

Pakistan's former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is back in exile after a failed attempt to return to his home country today. Sharif flew into Pakistan's capital Islamabad from London, vowing to lead the opposition against General Pervez Musharraf. His arrival was considered a serious challenge to Musharraf's shaky grip on power. Within a few hours, though, Sharif was back on a plane, this time, heading for Saudi Arabia.

From Islamabad, NPR's Philip Reeves reports on today's events.

PHILIP REEVES: He dreamed of a triumphant return to his homeland. Yet, it was clear from the moment Nawaz Sharif touched down in Pakistan, it wasn't going to be that way. The former prime minister left Britain, accompanied by a crowd of journalists, on a mission to end Musharraf's military rule. But soon after landing, with his plane surrounded by commandos, Sharif told the TV cameras that Pakistani authorities had other ideas.

Mr. NAWAZ SHARIF (Former Prime Minister of Pakistan): Instead of taking us to the arrival lounge, they might take us somewhere else. And they might have something else ready to fly us off.

REEVES: Inside Islamabad Airport, officials were waiting with an arrest warrant, alleging money laundering and corruption. Sharif was eventually taken away by a helicopter and put on a flight to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. He spent less than five hours on his home turf.

There were no crowds waiting to greet Sharif. The authorities had made sure of that by sealing off Islamabad Airport with thousands of police and soldiers. A handful of Sharif supporters managed to sneak past the roadblocks and razor wire.

Unidentified Man #1: He worked - we've done nothing.

Unidentified Man #2: Nothing.

Unidentified Man #3: He worked with terrorism.

Unidentified Man #1: No, no, no.

REEVES: Others, like this group, were arrested and taken away to join many hundreds of activists rounded up by the police in the last few days.

Airport worker Muhammad Safda(ph) watched the day's events unfold from a roadside cafe close to the airport.

Mr. MUHAMMAN SAFDA (Airport Worker): (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Sharif was exiled in Saudi Arabia seven years ago after being thrown out of office by a coup lead by Musharraf. At the time, Sharif made an agreement, broken by the Saudis, to stay away for a decade.

Safda thinks Sharif should now be allowed back home. He sees today's crackdown as a sign of Musharraf's weakness.

Standing at a police roadblock nearby, Saraful Khan(ph), a Sharif party official, is even more critical of today's events. He says there are further evidence it's time for Pakistan's generals to get out of politics.

Mr. SARAFUL KHAN (Sharif Party Official): It's simply pathetic. We are dejected by seeing these things because I belong to a new generation. We are totally unhappy, totally frustrated. It seems that it's a proletarian(ph) state, no civil liberty, no human rights. But it has to change. It's the 21st century.

REEVES: The stage is now set in Pakistan for a possible confrontation between President Musharraf and the supreme court. The court recently ruled Sharif could come back to Pakistan and ordered the government not to obstruct his return. Sharif's people say by deporting Sharif, the government's blatantly violated that ruling. They plan to go back to court to challenge Musharraf.

Pakistan's government insists it has acted lawfully. There are signs the government may claim Sharif chose to return to Saudi Arabia after being told the alternative was jail. Whatever the court concludes, opposition to Musharraf will likely grow. Deporting Sharif has reminded Pakistanis of the general's autocratic streak at the very time he's trying to carry political support for his efforts to get reelected in the next few weeks.

Muin Batli(ph), an activist from Sharif's party, says the struggle to oust the general is about to intensify.

Mr. MUIN BATLI (Activist from Sharif's Party): There'll be the legal challenge. There'll be civil society organizing, street protest. There'll be working through the media. So there'll be multiple sort of challenge through multiple channels.

REEVES: Opposition parties have called strikes and protests for tomorrow over the deporting of Sharif. Musharraf will be watching closely, eager to see how many Pakistanis respond.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.

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