- The Washington Times - Monday, September 10, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif landed in Pakistan late last night, returning from exile to lead a campaign to topple the country’s U.S.-allied military ruler who ousted him in a military coup eight years ago.

Police arrested leading Sharif supporters and clashed with others on blocked roads leading to Islamabad’s airport, where he arrived on board a Pakistan International Airlines flight from London.

Supporters on the flight chanted “go, Musharraf, go” as Mr. Sharif’s flight taxied on the runway, an Associated Press reporter on board said.

Before leaving London, Mr. Sharif warned that President Pervez Musharraf’s government might try to arrest or deport him. At the last minute, he asked his brother Shahbaz Sharif to remain in Britain so he could lead the party in case anything happened to the former prime minister.

The Pakistani government hinted it may arrest or deport Mr. Sharif when he arrives, and an arrest warrant was issued against his brother last week in connection with a murder case.

Any attempt to arrest Mr. Sharif, whose elected government was ousted by Gen. Musharraf in a 1999 coup, is likely to sharpen political tensions ahead of presidential and legislative elections and could trigger violence.

The looming showdown could further weaken Gen. Musharraf’s faltering grip on power, as the country battles surges of Islamic extremism that’s spread from the Afghan border, where Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders are thought to be hiding.

Mr. Sharif said he expected Gen. Musharraf to invoke emergency powers to stop his supporters in Pakistan, but he said that only underscored the need for him to return and fight to restore full democracy and the power of the judiciary.

“We are not scared of anything — prisons and jails we have gone through all that,” he said.

At the boarding gate, Mr. Sharif turned to his brother, who had a boarding pass to travel with him, and asked him to stay behind in Britain.

“In case anything happens in Pakistan, you can run the party from here,” he told his brother, who had tears in eyes.

Mr. Sharif plans to travel in a motorcade to his home and political base in Lahore, about 180 miles to the south. The trip through Punjab province could take three days as he greets supporters along the way, Mr. Sharif’s party said.

More than 2,000 Sharif supporters in Punjab were detained in a crackdown over the past four days, and others have gone into hiding, said Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for Mr. Sharif’s party. Police and security officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, confirmed about 700 arrests.

Late last night, police used trucks and tractors to block main roads leading to the airport to prevent Mr. Sharif’s supporters from greeting him, witnesses said. People with tickets were transported in special minibuses to the airport.

Earlier yesterday,a mobile squad swooped down on three buses carrying suspected Sharif supporters. Armed officers mounted each bus and ordered the drivers to take the passengers away — apparently into custody.

Analysts say Mr. Sharif’s return could crank up the pressure on Gen. Musharraf and upset talks on a power-sharing pact with his longtime rival Benazir Bhutto, another exiled former prime minister plotting a political comeback.

Gen. Musharraf wants to win a new five-year presidential term from lawmakers by mid-October, while Mr. Sharif and Mrs. Bhutto want to contest general elections due by mid-January 2008.

Mrs. Bhutto says she also plans to return to Pakistan, regardless of the outcome of the talks. She is due to announce her return date on Friday.

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