Former PM Sharif Back in Pakistan Amid Tumult

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif is back in Pakistan after eight years of exile and one abortive bid to return. Scores of his supporters have been confined by President Pervez Musharraf's government.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Pakistan's exiled former prime minister, Nawas Sharif, has returned home. Sharif has been living in exile in Saudi Arabia since he was overthrown by President Pervez Musharraf in a bloodless coup in 1999. Mr. Musharraf reluctantly agreed to allow Sharif into the country after being pressured by Saudi Arabia to take the former prime minister back so he can participate in elections scheduled for early next year.

NPR's Jackie Northam is in the Pakistan capital, Islamabad. Jackie, first of all, tell us what kind of welcome there was for Sharif when he landed back in Pakistan?

NORTHAM: Well, there were very few supporters waiting for Sharif. There are a few small crowds, but many people were held back from getting to the airport to greet him. Early this morning, hundreds of police were deployed at the airport and they'd set up roadblocks in the area. Officials with Sharif's party said police started rounding up hundreds of their supporters around the country in advance of his arrival.

Now, Sharif's party is saying that there may not be any welcome back rally, because it may not be allowed. The government spokesman said there are security concerns and that they don't want a repeat of what happened last month when Benazir Bhutto - another former prime minister - returned to Pakistan. She had a huge caravan going to the streets and a suicide bomb went off, and at least 130 were killed.

Sharif's people say the government doesn't want, you know, that sort of caravan or a rally simply because they don't want people to see how popular Sharif still is.

HANSEN; And is Sharif expected to run in the upcoming parliamentary elections? And if so, do you think he can give Musharraf a run for his money?

NORTHAM: Well, you know, there's a lot of debate here about whether Sharif will run in the elections. Many people feel that he definitely will take part and that's why he's coming back to Pakistan today because the deadline for filing his nomination papers for the election is tomorrow, Monday. And yes, it's believed he could mount a real challenge to Musharraf; he leads one of the largest opposition parties. But, Liane, that's if Sharif runs. And there are a lot of people here who think that he will boycott the elections in large part because they view it as a sham. Musharraf has manipulated the courts and the constitution for the sole purpose of allowing him to run for another five-year term in office, and so many people see the elections as illegal.

HANSEN: One demand, certainly by Musharraf's political opponents and the international community, is that he step down as army chief of staff. Will he do that before the elections?

NORTHAM: Well, you know, he was expected to do that last Thursday and then Friday, and then his aides say by the end of this weekend, and now, there's talk that it has to happen by December 1st. I think a lot of Pakistanis - you know, they'll believe it when they see it. Let's not forget the person who is head of the military here, without question, is the most powerful person in the country, and Musharraf has held that position from eight years now.

HANSEN: Musharraf still has given no date for lifting the state of emergency when he imposed emergency rule on November 30. He said it was to prevent a rise of terrorism in Pakistan, but there were two terrorist attacks yesterday.

NORTHAM: Mm-hmm, that's right. At least 15 people were killed in those attacks. They happened in Rawalpindi, which is just outside the capital, Islamabad. And one was at a compound of Pakistan's intelligence service and the other was at an army headquarters, so two government installations. And security officials believe it's the work of pro-Taliban militants who are making inroads, actually, from the tribal regions along the Afghan border to the towns and cities in Pakistan.

There's been a series of bombings over the past few months and this is the first since Musharraf declared the state of emergency. And it was fairly brazen, happening so close to the capital. And that's generated criticism that Musharraf is really done little to curb terrorism and many feel he's focusing more on taming his political opponents.

HANSEN: NPR's Jackie Northam in Islamabad. Thank you, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Liane.

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