US denies hand in Sharif deportation

By Arun Kumar, IANS

Washington : The United States has denied a hand in the deportation of exiled former Pakistan premier Nawaz Sharif on his return home, while expressing mild disapproval of its key ally President Pervez Musharraf’s action.

“It’s a matter for the Pakistanis to resolve,” said state department spokesman Sean McCormack Monday, denying Washington had anything to do with it when asked to comment on “almost a universal perception in Pakistan” that the US had a hand in it.

Referring to the agreement among Islamabad, Nawaz Sharif, his brother, and the Saudi government that sent the deposed leader into exile seven years ago, he said, “we are not party to that.”

“It’s up to the parties involved to interpret that agreement as they will.” But the decision to deport Sharif back to Saudi Arabia runs contrary to Pakistan Supreme Court’s view last month that the former premier had the right to return and the government should not try to stop him, he said noting it “only as a factual matter.”

“But it is still a pending legal matter in Pakistan, so we’re not going to have anything to say about it. But this is wholly and entirely a Pakistani issue to resolve.”

McCormack also denied the presence of two state department officials, deputy secretary John Negroponte and assistant secretary Richard Boucher, had anything to do with the action against Sharif.

“No. As a matter of fact, it’s coincidence that the timing of this particular strategic dialogue takes place right now… This is something that had been scheduled prior to the political calendar, shall we say, that’s unfolding now in Pakistan.”

But he would not say if the two officials had any message for Musharraf or any other Pakistani leaders about the situation “at this point.”

Asked to comment on the implications of the deportation action on the political process, McCormack said, “…we would echo the comments of others around the world that the upcoming elections in Pakistan take place within the confines of Pakistani law and the constitution, and that those elections meet international standards so that all can have confidence in them, so that they are free, fair and transparent.”

Turning to the war against terror, he suggested that Pakistani forces were now taking action in its north western territories that US intelligence officials have said has turned into a safe haven for the Taliban and Al Qaeda elements.

“The Pakistani military is taking losses in going into those territories that haven’t been controlled by any Pakistani government. And we have encouraged President Musharraf to do everything that he can to bring those territories under control and not allow them to be a safe haven for Al Qaeda extremists or other terrorists.”

“There’s more work to be done. There’s certainly more progress to be made in those territories. But President Musharraf is keenly aware of the importance of not only economic, but military efforts in that region,” he said.

Meanwhile, White House spokesman Tony Snow said the National Intelligence Estimate’s reference to the growing strength of Al Qaeda related only to the tribal lands of Pakistan and was not “a global characterisation.”

Al Qaeda, in fact, does not have the kind of support that it used to have in areas. So when you talk about the growing strength of Al Qaeda, that is a reaction to the fact that there were safe havens in some areas of Pakistan. It was not in fact a global characterisation,” he said.