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Throngs Welcome Pakistan's Ex-Leader

Sharif Calls for Lifting Emergency Measures

Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 26, 2007; Page A01

LAHORE, Pakistan, Nov. 25 -- Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan late Sunday, greeted by crowds of frenzied supporters after seven years in exile. His arrival injects a new element of complexity into the country's chaotic political scene and presents a powerful challenge to the military president who deposed him.

Sharif had attempted to return in September but was forced to leave the country without stepping off his plane. This time, his homecoming received the reluctant acquiescence of President Pervez Musharraf.

Supporters of Pakistan's ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif celebrate the return of their leader, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2007, in Peshawar, Pakistan. Sharif is expected to arrive on Sunday.(AP Photo/Mohammad Zubair)
Supporters of Pakistan's ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif celebrate the return of their leader, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2007, in Peshawar, Pakistan. Sharif is expected to arrive on Sunday.(AP Photo/Mohammad Zubair) (Mohammad Zubair - AP)
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Police sealed off the airport in Lahore, Sharif's political stronghold, early Sunday following rumors that he would be arrested or whisked away to his suburban home under guard. But hundreds of supporters surged through the police lines and barricades, chanting his name nonstop as they waited for his plane from Saudi Arabia to land.

Sharif finally emerged about 7:30 p.m. and attempted to speak, but his words were inaudible in the roar of cheers. He was then carried aloft by the crowd to a black bulletproof Mercedes-Benz. His motorcade inched through the city all evening, along streets lined with tens of thousands of supporters.

News agencies reported that Sharif called on Musharraf to lift the emergency rule he declared Nov. 3 and to restore the suspended constitution. Sharif said that the emergency conditions were "not conducive to free and fair elections" and that he had "come back to save my country."

Musharraf has scheduled parliamentary elections for Jan. 8, hoping to preside over a controlled transition to civilian rule. He has pledged to resign as army chief as soon as this week and to take office as a civilian president for the next five years. He has not said whether he will lift the emergency before the elections.

Sharif's aides said the former prime minister, a bitter adversary of Musharraf, had not decided whether to run for parliament but would consult with other opposition parties this week. They said that Sharif, his brother Shahbaz Sharif and several other relatives would submit candidacy papers by the filing deadline this week in case the groups decide not to boycott the elections.

It was equally unclear what impact Sharif's return would have on the political fortunes of Benazir Bhutto, another former prime minister and highly popular opposition leader. She could end up competing against Sharif in a repeat of their 1990s rivalry, or they could jointly boycott the polls or form a formidable election coalition.

Bhutto, who filed her candidacy papers Sunday in the port city of Karachi "under protest," told reporters she would view positively any proposal from Sharif for an election coalition. Bhutto had previously sought a power-sharing agreement with Musharraf but became increasingly critical of him in recent weeks and has been placed under house arrest twice this month.

Bhutto returned from exile last month to a similarly emotional welcome from supporters in her Pakistan People's Party. However, her Oct. 18 homecoming was marred by a suicide bombing that killed 140 people as her motorcade wound slowly through Karachi.

Aside from scattered scuffles between Sharif loyalists and police, no violence was reported here Sunday night. Police had arrested hundreds of activists from Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League party Saturday night, and provincial officials announced an emergency ban on public gatherings Sunday.

But no attempt was made to prevent crowds from lining the streets along Sharif's motorcade route. As the night deepened, Lahore turned into a street festival. Fireworks crackled, loudspeakers blared from trucks and banners covered buses.

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