Asia Crisis

Sharif due in Pakistan, Musharraf's problems mount

ISLAMABAD, Nov 25 (Reuters) - Pakistan's exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is expected to return home on Sunday to a country under emergency rule imposed by President Pervez Musharraf, the general who deposed him eight years ago.

Sharif is due to land in his home town, the eastern city of Lahore, sometime between 3 and 4 p.m. (1000-1100 GMT) on a flight laid on by Saudi King Abdullah from the holy city of Medina.

The king has also provided Sharif, who is travelling with his wife, Kulsoom, and politician brother and fellow exile Shahbaz Sharif, with an armour-plated Mercedes, aides said.

Mounting insecurity in Pakistan was underscored by two suicide car bomb attacks in Rawalpindi, the garrison town next to the capital Islamabad on Saturday that killed at least 15 people. There have been more than 25 suicide attacks since July.

One attack targeted a bus carrying personnel to an intelligence building, and the other struck an army checkpoint outside General Headquarters.

Two security officials told Reuters on condition of anonymity that more than 35 people were killed, but there was no independent verification of the number of casualties.

In contrast to the last time Sharif tried to return in September, when he was swiftly dispatched back into exile in Saudi Arabia, Musharraf has now given his reluctant approval, according to a senior aide to the president.

Sharif's return, just in time to file nomination papers for a Jan. 8 parliamentary election, means the increasingly unpopular Musharraf will have to contend with two ex-premiers he has spent much of the last eight years trying to marginalise.

General Musharraf, hoping that Benazir Bhutto might become a post-election ally, allowed her back a month ago, shielded from prosecution in old corruption cases she says were politically motivated. She turned confrontational soon after getting back.

Her distrust of the establishment was reinforced by a suicide attack on her homecoming parade that killed at least 139 people.


As things stand, hardly anyone is expecting a free and fair election in a little over seven weeks time.

The authorities have already demonstrated their readiness to muzzle the media and detain anyone of influence speaking out against Musharraf, who imposed the emergency on Nov. 3 to safeguard his presidency from challenges to his re-election.

Western governments fear that stifling democracy could benefit Islamist militants threatening nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Musharraf has already secured his own second five-year term, having used the emergency to purge the Supreme Court of judges who might have ruled his re-election by parliament last month invalid, and is expected to be sworn in over coming days.

He is expected to fulfil a promise to quit as army chief and take his oath as a civilian leader. But his next big problem is whether the coming election will have any credibility and whether the parliament that emerges will be friendly or hostile.

Musharraf did not want Sharif back, but acquiesced under pressure from King Abdullah during talks in Riyadh last Tuesday.

Saudi embarrassment over complicity in Sharif's exile was compounded when Bhutto was allowed back.

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.

Leaders of the ruling PML now fear many of their party might flock to the banner of Sharif, whose return is expected to reduce chances of an opposition boycott of the polls.

Musharraf imposed a two-term limit on the prime ministership in 2002, which bars both Sharif and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto from another stint.

Shaukat Aziz, the prime minister whose term just ended, announced he would not stand for re-election, saying he needed a break after serving eight years in the government. (Editing by Charles Dick)