Sharif returns home, denies deal with Musharraf

By Muhammad Najeeb, IANS

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Islamabad : Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif Sunday evening returned to the country after seven years of forced exile but he denied his homecoming was due to a secret understanding with President Pervez Musharraf ahead of crucial elections in January.

Sharif, who heads his own faction of the Pakistan Muslim League – PML-N, arrived by a special plane provided by Saudi King Abdullah. He was accompanied by 11 members of his family including his wife Kulsoom and younger brother Shahbaz.

“I have not come back under any deal… if I had to cut a deal I could have done it earlier,” Sharif said addressing his supporters outside the Lahore airport.

Wearing a white salwar-kameez and black waistcoat, Sharif looked relaxed and waived to the cheering crowd with a smile on his face. He came out of the plane with Shahbaz followed by Kulsoom, who spearheaded a campaign when Sharif was sent to jail after bloodless military coup against his government in October 1999.

Sharif, along with his family members, was sent into exile to Saudi Arabia by President Pervez Musharraf in December 2000.

An emotional Sharif said he had missed his country, his people and everything that belongs to Pakistan during his exile.

“I am so happy now that no one can believe it… I am again with my people, I am back in my country, I would be able to embrace my friends and would serve my country.”

He said he would decide about the Jan 8 elections after discussions with his party colleagues and friends in All Parties Democratic Movement.

Though his party was mum, there was speculation that he would file his nomination papers Monday, the last day for filing papers to contest the polls for national and provincial legislatures.

Sharif said that it was wrong to say that he left the country under an agreement to save his skin. “I will give details but right now would like say that I had only one option and that was to leave the country.”

He said that while in exile he lost his father and could not even attend his funeral.

This was his second attempt at homecoming. On Sep 10 Sharif landed at the Islamabad airport from London but was bundled to Saudi Arabia after four hours.

According to his party’s plans, Sharif was be taken to the tomb of 16th century saint Sheikh Ali Hajveri, commonly known as Data Sahib, from where he would drive to his home.

The king also sent a bulletproof car that reached Lahore early Sunday morning for his security. Unconfirmed reports said two more such cars were brought in which Sharif and his family members travelled to their home, some 50 km from the airport.

The government made heavy security arrangements that included more than 5,000 security personnel belonging to different agencies. Officials said an army officer was heading the security for Sharif.

Sharif’s special plane landed at 6.25 p.m. (local time) with hundreds of people cheering him with slogans of “Long live prime minister Nawaz Sharif” and hailing him as Quaid-e-Jamhooriat (leader of democracy).

The PML-N workers who were stopped three kilometres from the main terminal of the airport by security officers jumped barricades and reached the airport defying the city administration that has imposed section 144 in and around the airport restricting assembly of five and more people.

The administration earlier had announced that it would allow only 75 PML-N leaders to enter the airport area.

But it seemed a bit soft towards the Sharif followers this time, unlike on Sep 10 when no one was allowed to reach the Islamabad airport to welcome him.

Senior officials close to the president say that Sharif’s return came after a deal with Musharraf, who was recently in Saudi Arabia, and would be contesting the elections against another former prime minister Benazir Bhutto who came back Oct 18 ending her eight years of self-exile.

Observers say that Musharraf called Sharif back to pitch him against Bhutto who had criticised the military ruler for imposing emergency in the country Nov 3.

However, both sides deny any agreement.

“He left the country under some deal with the third country and must be coming back after some understanding with the same country,” Musharraf’s spokesman Rashid Qureshi told reporters.

Caretaker Prime Minister Muhammadmian Soomro said Sharif, as a citizen of Pakistan, had every right to return to the country.

State-run Pakistan Television gave extensive coverage to Sharif’s return by interrupting its routine transmission.

“Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has returned to the country to a huge welcome,” the PTV newscaster said.