Tensions rise as ex-premier Nawaz Sharif lands in Pakistan


Islamabad : Pakistan’s former prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif landed at Islamabad airport Monday after almost seven years in exile, sparking clashes between police and activists who tried to welcome the returning politician.

Support TwoCircles

Tear gas and baton charges were used to disperse processions of workers of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and other opposition parties and lawyer’s associations who tried to approach the airport, which security forces sealed off early Monday.

Several people were reportedly injured on the streets of Islamabad’s connecting twin city of Rawalpindi, where demonstrators pelted police with stones.

No media workers were allowed near the airport although several television channels showed the arrival of the Pakistan International Airlines flight that brought Sharif and his entourage from London.

“I am very happy to be here in my homeland, and I’m ready to face any situation,” Sharif told an accompanying group of reporters after the plane landed, the Geo news channel said.

Sharif has vowed to restore civilian democracy in Pakistan and resist military rule under President Pervez Musharraf, an army general who ousted him in a bloodless coup in 1999.

“I have a duty, I have a responsibility, I have a national obligation to fulfil at all costs, and that is democracy,” he said earlier.

Musharraf, who is preparing to seek a further five-year mandate from parliament around Oct 15, had urged Sharif not to come back, saying it would destabilize the country.

The government has also threatened to reactivate charges against him. Sharif was sentenced to life imprisonment for treason, hijacking, tax evasion and corruption but was sent into exile in Saudi Arabia for 10 years in late 2000.

If he is not detained, Sharif planned to drive in a slow-moving motorcade to his home city and power base of Lahore.

Meanwhile, authorities launched a massive crackdown on the workers of the PML-N and allied political parties. According to officials of his party, more than 4,000 of their workers were arrested in recent days.

Many senior opposition leaders and parliamentarians were placed under house arrest overnight before Sharif’s arrival while security forces sealed off entry points into Islamabad and the garrison city of Rawalpindi. Large containers were also dumped on highways from Lahore and Peshawar to block traffic.

Cellular phone-jamming equipment was installed at the airport, preventing television reporters from giving live coverage of Sharif’s arrival.

The government has threatened to arrest Sharif on his return and deport him to Saudi Arabia so that he could complete his exile.

“We are considering three options: letting him go to Lahore, arresting him or sending him in another plane to Saudia Arabia,” Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani told the Geo news channel.

Speaking to Dawn television minutes before the ex-premier’s arrival, Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid also said he might be deported but that such a step could be construed as contempt of court after the Supreme Court ruled last month that Sharif could return home unimpeded.

Sharif, who served twice as prime minister from 1990 to 1999, claimed he never agreed to a 10-year exile and that he was given a verbal assurance he could return after five years.