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Former Pakistan PM heads home to challenge president

LONDON/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister of Pakistan, was flying home on Sunday after seven years in exile to challenge President Pervez Musharraf, who could arrest him when he touches down.

Pakistani authorities tightened security at Islamabad’s airport and detained more than 2,000 Sharif supporters, his party said on Sunday, the eve of his arrival.

Sharif, ousted by Musharraf in a 1999 coup and sent into exile in Saudi Arabia the following year, headed home despite an appeal from a Saudi official for him to stay away for the sake of stability.

Sharif’s return is a serious challenge for Musharraf, who has lost much support since trying to dismiss the country’s top judge in March.

It comes as Musharraf is preparing to try to secure another term in a presidential election by the national and provincial assemblies some time between September 15 and October 15.

A general election is due around the end of the year.

“I’m feeling great,” Sharif told reporters as he prepared to get on the plane. Uniformed British police escorted him through a crowd of supporters on his way to the flight at London’s Heathrow airport.

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“My ambition is very clear, I have to take Pakistan back to the rule of democracy, because unless we have this, we will continue to be in a state of mess as we are today,” he told reporters on the plane as they waited for takeoff.

Political tensions are high in Pakistan. Sharif’s spokesman, Ahsan Iqbal, said authorities had detained more than 2,000 activists from Sharif’s party in Punjab province, Sharif’s political power base.

A provincial police official said 250 “trouble makers” had been picked up.

EXILE

Sharif, 57, was scheduled to arrive in Islamabad at around 0740 local time (0240 GMT) on Monday on a Pakistan International Airlines flight. A security high alert has been declared at the airport which will be largely sealed off.

“Security is at high alert and tomorrow visitors won’t be allowed in, only people with confirmed tickets,” a security official said.

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Sharif plans to lead a procession the 300 km (200 miles) from Islamabad to Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, and is expected to draw huge crowds -- the last thing Musharraf wants as he prepares to try to secure another term in a presidential election.

Musharraf sent Sharif to Saudi Arabia in 2000 as part of what the government says was an agreement that Sharif would stay in exile for 10 years. In return, he avoided a life sentence on hijacking and corruption charges.

Pakistan says the Saudi royal family and assassinated Lebanese leader Rafik al-Hariri guaranteed the deal. Sharif said on Saturday he understood the agreement was for five years exile.

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The Supreme Court last month said Sharif had the right to return and the government should not try to stop him.

Saudi intelligence chief Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz and Hariri’s son, Saad, met Musharraf in Islamabad on Saturday.

“We are hoping, we are really hoping, sincerely hoping, His Excellency Nawaz Sharif honors this agreement,” Muqrin told reporters. He cited concern about Pakistani stability.

The government has not said what it will do when Sharif lands. He faces the possibility of arrest on graft charges as he steps off his aircraft in Islamabad, or even deportation.

Sharif said he expected the government to respect the Supreme Court decision.

“I don’t expect that Mr. Musharraf will go against the decision of the Supreme Court or take any action which is violative of the Supreme Court verdict because that would amount to a very serious contempt,” Sharif told reporters.

Additional reporting by Robert Birsel in Islamabad and Siddhartha Dubey in London

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