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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Musharraf returns from Saudi Arabia, suspense over Sharif
Wed Nov 21, 2007 2:02am EST
By Simon Cameron-Moore
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - President Pervez Musharraf returned on Wednesday from a visit to Saudi Arabia that had sparked speculation whether he would reach out to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif or seek to extend his exile there.
The extent of Musharraf's political isolation since he declared emergency rule on November 3 has become so evident that many political analysts believe his aim in going to Saudi Arabia was to engage Sharif, who has rebuffed him several times.
Musharraf's chances of a deal with Benazir Bhutto, another former prime minister, but one he had allowed to return home last month, have receded since the imposition of an emergency as she doubts whether elections set for January 8 will be fair.
Western governments fear that stifling democracy any longer could play into the hands of Islamist militants threatening to destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan.
While critical of Musharraf's imposition of the emergency, the United States appeared to be giving Musharraf space to put things right.
"He has done more for democracy in Pakistan than any modern leader has. Are we happy with the emergency rule? No we're not," President George W. Bush told ABC News in a interview overnight.
"Do I understand how important he is in fighting extremists and radicals? I do. And do I believe that he's going to end up getting Pakistan back on the road to democracy? I certainly hope so."
While it appeared unlikely that General Musharraf would have had any direct contact with Sharif, who he deposed in 1999, intermediaries could have been used.
Lieutenant General Nadeem Taj, the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, Pakistan's premier spy agency, stayed behind in Saudi Arabia and was returning separately.
Musharraf spent less than 24 hours in Saudi Arabia, and during that time he met King Abdullah, Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and intelligence chief Murqin bin Abdul-Aziz. Musharraf also made a fleeting pilgrimage to Mecca before coming home on Wednesday morning.
The Saudi intelligence chief had visited Islamabad in September, days before Sharif tried to return to Pakistan only to be put on a flight back to exile in Jeddah.
Diplomats say Saudi Arabia is embarrassed by its complicity in Sharif's exile and would like the situation resolved.
Musharraf's spokesman Rashid Qureshi denied that any contact with Sharif had figured on Musharraf's itinerary.
"Not at all. There was no plan, there was no schedule. No such thing was to happen," Qureshi said.
Although Pakistan is racked with militancy, one of Musharraf's main motives for declaring an emergency was to purge the Supreme Court of judges who appeared set to annul his re-election by parliament last month.
Rivals had lodged challenges against General Musharraf's right to have contested while still army chief.
The court, now packed with pro-government judges, is expected to strike down the last of six petitions against Musharraf's re-election on Thursday, after which he is expected to quit as army chief and take an oath as a civilian president.
"The moment the notification is made, he will take oath as a civilian president," Qureshi said, adding that it would probably happen a day after the Supreme Court issued clearance.
The Commonwealth of 53 nations, mostly former British colonies, has threatened Pakistan with suspension unless Musharraf repealed emergency rule among other steps.
On Tuesday, Pakistan announced it had released most of more than 5,000 lawyers, opposition and rights activists detained since November 3, and a remaining 2,000 would be released soon.

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