LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, returning from exile to Pakistan where President Pervez Musharraf is ruling with emergency powers, vowed on Sunday to help end “dictatorship” in the country.
Sharif, ousted by General Musharraf eight years ago, said he would file his nomination papers to run in a January 8 general election that many people doubt can be free and fair.
“I came to serve the people and save Pakistan,” Sharif told a throng of supporters at the airport in his hometown of Lahore, after arriving back from Saudi Arabia to a jubilant welcome.
“We want democracy and nothing else,” he told the BBC by telephone. “I am here to play my role and also make my own efforts to rid the country of dictatorship.”
Western governments fear Musharraf’s emergency rule and stifling democracy in Pakistan could be to the advantage of Islamist militants threatening the nuclear-armed nation.
Thousands of people lined the road from the airport, cheering and beating drums to welcome Sharif, who arrived with his wife Kulsoom and politician brother Shahbaz Sharif, a fellow exile, on an aircraft provided by the Saudi monarch.
Hours later, he was still inching his way into the city, stopping his vehicle every now and then to greet supporters.
Mounting insecurity in Pakistan was underscored by two suicide attacks in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, on Saturday. The attacks killed at least 15 people, military spokesman Major-General Waheed Arshad said on Sunday, although some media reported it was more than 30.
Suicide bombers attacked another former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s motorcade when Musharraf allowed her to return last month in the hope that she would become an ally. At least 139 people were killed.
Unpopular and politically isolated, Musharraf now has to contend with two rivals he has spent much of the last eight years trying to marginalise.
This was Sharif’s second attempt at returning from exile after a first in September ended with his deportation.
But the political atmosphere has changed radically since then with Musharraf’s imposition of an emergency on November 3 and the apparent breakdown of efforts to forge cooperation between Musharraf and Bhutto.
U.S. ally Musharraf, who will need support from a new parliament after the general election, went to Saudi Arabia to meet its leaders last week.
Analysts speculated he wanted to persuade Saudi’s King Abdullah to keep Sharif there longer but reluctantly agreed to let him back. Newspapers said Musharraf’s envoys later proposed cooperation with Sharif.
Sharif will lead his party in the election if he decides to take part.
Police detained thousands of Sharif’s supporters prior to his arrival, according to party loyalists.
But a throng of well-wishers clapped and danced as they waved portraits, placards and party flags as Sharif, dressed in traditional white shalwar kameez and black waistcoat, emerged from the airport terminal.
Sharif plans to discuss an election boycott with the other main opposition party, led by Bhutto, but said he intended to file nomination papers on Monday, the deadline to register.
Bhutto welcomed Sharif’s return as she filed her nomination papers in Sindh province.
Sheikh Mohammad Ali, 60, a labourer with a Sharif party flag at an intersection, waiting to welcome Sharif home said Musharraf had to go: “We don’t like this dictator. during his rule there’s been nothing but poverty, unemployment and insecurity.”
Musharraf co-opted the rump of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League after ousting him. Leaders of the ruling PML faction fear many of their party may now defect back to Sharif.
The general secured his own second five-year term by using emergency powers to purge Supreme Court judges who might have annulled his re-election by parliament last month. He is expected to quit as army chief and take his oath as a civilian soon.
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider in Lahore and Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Richard Balmforth
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