Police Meet Plane As Musharraf Rival Returns From Exile

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 10, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sept. 10 -- Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif landed back in Pakistan Monday morning after nearly seven years in exile, but police acting on orders from the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, quickly surrounded the plane and seemed prepared to take Sharif into custody.

An hour after the flight landed, Sharif had still not emerged from the plane, and there were reports that a tense standoff was underway. Busloads of black-uniformed commandos taxied along the tarmac. News services reported that Sharif was refusing to hand over his passport. The Reuters news agency reported that he had left the plane after 90 minutes.

The Pakistan International Airlines flight from London touched down at 8:45 a.m., and came to a halt on the tarmac next to a waiting helicopter, its rotors spinning. Sharif's supporters had planned a massive rally at Islamabad airport to welcome him, but extraordinarily tight security kept them away.

The area around the airport was almost sealed, with only ticketed passengers allowed to get anywhere close. Hundreds of police and heavily armed army rangers stood watch on roads leading to the terminal building. All cellphone signals near the airport were jammed.

The episode in some ways mirrored the circumstances under which Sharif lost power to Musharraf eight years ago. On Oct. 12, 1999, while he was prime minister, Sharif refused landing rights to a plane carrying Musharraf, his army chief, setting off a military coup that resulted in Sharif's exile.

On Monday, their roles were reversed. It was up to Musharraf to decide whether to let Sharif's plane land and, if it did, what to do with Sharif.

The return of Musharraf's nemesis could have far-reaching implications here, as the general is fighting for his political life.

Sharif has emerged as Musharraf's most relentless critic and has vowed to do all he can to keep the general from winning a new term when he comes up for election, perhaps later this month. That position has brought him a sudden wave of popularity.

Musharraf and his aides had in recent days put intense pressure on Sharif not to return, and they had threatened to arrest him or immediately deport him if he did.

Over the weekend, the government carried out a massive security crackdown, with Sharif's party saying that more than 2,500 of its members had been arrested and that others had their homes raided. On Sunday night, police tried to eject journalists from the airport and set up roadblocks on adjacent streets.

Despite the intensified security, members of Sharif's faction of the center-right Pakistan Muslim League vowed Sunday to turn out in large numbers to welcome him home after nearly seven years in exile.

"The moment Nawaz Sharif sets foot on our soil, the days of this government will be numbered," said party spokesman Ahsan Iqbal. "Nobody will be able to stop the march of democracy."

Iqbal said the crackdown in advance of a planned "peaceful reception" proved that Musharraf is a dictator, not a democrat. "This is the true face of the Musharraf regime," he said.

Musharraf and his aides had insisted that by coming back to Pakistan, Sharif would be violating terms of an exile agreement he signed in 2000 with the royal family in Saudi Arabia. Under the agreement, Sharif was allowed to avoid serving a life sentence associated with his decision not to allow Musharraf's plane to land. Instead, he was given refuge in Saudi Arabia, provided he stayed out of Pakistani politics for 10 years, Pakistani officials have said.

On Saturday, Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief, Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, met with Musharraf and afterward told reporters that he wants Sharif to keep his word.

But last month, Pakistan's Supreme Court ruled that the agreement was nonbinding because it was not made with the Pakistani government, and that Sharif and his brother, Shabaz Sharif, have "an inalienable right" to return.

The verdict put Musharraf in a quandary. If he deported Sharif, he risked a constitutional showdown with the Supreme Court and its chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, whom Musharraf tried to fire earlier this year. If he arrested Sharif, Musharraf risked turning him into a hero. And if he allowed him to enter the country unhindered, Sharif would be free to lead an anti-Musharraf campaign in the streets.

Some in Musharraf's camp had advocated taking a hard line, but Mushahid Hussain, a top official in the ruling party, said last week he feared a backlash if the government interfered.

"If you try to block him and do something contrary to the Supreme Court ruling, it could have unintended consequences," he said.

Sharif left Sunday night from London's Heathrow Airport, where he was surrounded by supporters and journalists. Before the plane took off, he gave a speech in which he said that "enough is enough" and that he was ready to sacrifice anything to restore democracy to Pakistan.

Sharif also warned Musharraf against deporting him, saying the president would regret such a move. "Mr. Musharraf is not only answerable to the Supreme Court of Pakistan, he is answerable to the 160 million people of Pakistan," Sharif said in an interview with the Dawn News television channel.

On Sunday, his aides had told reporters in Pakistan that Sharif would be flying into the country via a Gulf Air flight through Oman. But that turned out to be a ruse, with Sharif boarding the Pakistan International Airlines flight while his brother stayed behind. Shabaz Sharif, also a politician, had been expected to travel with his brother until the last minute.

Following his arrival, Sharif had planned to lead a procession from Islamabad to the eastern city of Lahore, his traditional base of support.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company