November 20, 2007 6:59 pm

Sharif hopes to end Saudi exile

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Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s former prime minister, said he could return home as soon as next week to take part in the elections campaign if Saudi Arabia reached an agreement with General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s president, to end his exile in the kingdom.

Saudi sources said the kingdom favours an understanding between Gen Musharraf and both opposition leaders, Mr Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. A potential alliance between the opposition camps would seriously challenge Gen Musharraf’s hold on power.

The Saudi position is significantly different from the US’s, which has sought to keep Mr Sharif out of the picture.

The Saudis are convinced that the exiled leader is needed if stability is to be restored, according to the kingdom’s officials.

Mr Sharif told the Financial Times that his return to Pakistan was high on the agenda in talks between the Saudis and Gen Musharraf in Riyadh on Tuesday.

“The Saudi authorities are quite keen to take this matter forward with Musharraf,” Mr Sharif said. “And to my knowledge I know Musharraf is in Saudi Arabia to discuss my return to Pakistan.” Mr Sharif said he had been in close contact with the Saudi royal family, which he said was pushing for his return to Pakistan by November 26, deadline to register for the January 8 parliamentary elections.

But he said he would have to discuss the election strategy against Gen Musharraf with other opposition parties. “Our party [the PML-N] is not going to run alone . . . we are in contact with Bhutto and we have discussed the agenda,” to tackle Mr Musharraf, he said.

His comments came as Ms Bhutto on Tuesday night urged the US to back her party’s recent pressure on Gen Musharraf with coercive measures to ensure free and fair elections.

Ms Bhutto’s remarks, ahead of a key meeting of the top leaders of her Pakistan People’s party (PPP), suggested a significant hardening of her position towards Mr Musharraf in spite of indications that he is responding to some of Washington’s main demands.

On Tuesday, at least 3,000 arrested political activists and lawyers were released in an apparent response to a US demand conveyed through John Negroponte, the US deputy secretary of state, who visited Islamabad at the weekend.

A Pakistani minister in Islamabad said on Tuesday Gen Musharraf could announce his retirement from the military by this weekend to assume a civilian role in yet another conciliatory gesture towards the US.

“We are between a rock and a hard place. Can we participate in elections which could be such a farce?” asked Ms Bhutto.

“The messages from the US are strong but not backed by action. There has to be a coercive measure backing them up. This has to be done for a fair election in Pakistan,” said Ms Bhutto, without elaborating further on the types of actions she was seeking.

On Tuesday the police in Karachi detained at least 150 journalists protesting against the ban on TV channels.

Additional reporting by Roula Khalaf

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