ISLAMABAD Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister deposed by President Pervez Musharraf in a coup eight years ago, will return to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia on Sunday, his brother Shahbaz Sharif told a Pakistani news channel.
General Musharraf, under intense criticism at home and abroad for imposing emergency rule three weeks ago, agreed to Sharif's return in discussions with Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh this week, according to a leader of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML).
Sharif met King Abdullah in Riyadh for a "farewell meeting" on Friday.
"We will fly on Sunday on Saudi Airlines directly from Medina to Lahore," Shahbaz, speaking from London, told the private television channel ARYOne World.
Sharif will be joined by his wife Kulsoom and Shahbaz in Saudi and they will perform a pilgrimage to Mecca before taking the flight to Lahore, the capital of Punjab province and power base of the Sharif family.
Both brothers went into exile a year after the 1999 coup.
By returning on Sunday they will get back in time to file election nominations in order to contest a parliamentary poll on January 8.
Politically isolated, Musharraf allowed another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, to return to Pakistan last month after years abroad, by granting her protection against prosecution in old corruption cases she says were politically motivated.
The president sought to engage Bhutto as a potential ally, but Sharif refused to negotiate with the man who overthrew him.
Musharraf blocked an earlier attempt by Sharif to end his exile in September. Sharif was put on a flight to Jeddah hours after landing in Islamabad on September 10, but Saudi Arabia became increasingly embarrassed by its complicity.
Musharraf imposed a two-term limit on the prime ministership in 2002, which currently bars both Sharif and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto from another stint.
Having spent eight years trying to marginalize Sharif, and allowing Bhutto back last month, Musharraf appears to have admitted his failure to re-engineer Pakistan's polity, split by the coup that ended a decade of chaotic civilian rule.
Musharraf co-opted the rump of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League after ousting him. Confusingly there are now two PMLs, although Sharif's is usually referred to as the Nawaz League.
Aaj Television quoted Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, leader of the ruling PML, as saying that the party was not scared that its former boss was coming back, although political commentators believe many of his party could flock to Sharif.
The Commonwealth has suspended Pakistan's membership of the grouping of mostly former British colonies, underlining the pressure Musharraf has been under since invoking emergency powers to shore up his presidency.
Western governments fear that stifling democracy could benefit Islamist militants threatening nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Musharraf is expected to be sworn in as a civilian president imminently, after a Supreme Court packed with government-friendly judges dismissed the last challenge to his re-election in October by parliament.
Rivals said he should have been barred from contesting as army chief, while Musharraf said he would only quit the army after he had secured a second five-year term.
While Musharraf has achieved that objective, the next parliament could be less well disposed to him if polls are free and fair.
(With reporting by Sheree Sardar and Zeeshan Haider, editing by Andrew Roche)