Sharif plans Pakistan return

Former prime minister due today

two suicide bombers kill at least 18

November 25, 2007|By Kim Barker | Kim Barker,Chicago Tribune

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The exiled leader of Pakistan's second-largest opposition political party was scheduled to fly home today, party officials said, a move that could upset the country's fragile balance before parliamentary elections.

Also, two suicide bombers killed at least 18 people yesterday morning in almost simultaneous attacks on Pakistani security forces, including workers from the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, or ISI.

Government officials said they would allow the return of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a bitter rival of President Pervez Musharraf, the army chief who deposed Sharif in a bloodless military coup in 1999.

"This time [Sharif] will not be sent back," Sheik Rashid Ahmed, a former Cabinet member and Musharraf ally, told the Associated Press.

Sharif, who went into exile in Saudi Arabia to avoid criminal charges stemming from his refusal to allow Musharraf's plane to land in Pakistan in 1999 which sparked the coup, has been trying to return to Pakistan for months to lead his party in parliamentary elections in early January.

Pakistan's Supreme Court ruled that Sharif could return, but when he flew to Islamabad on Sept. 10, he was immediately flown back to Saudi Arabia.

At the time, Saudi officials reportedly agreed to keep Sharif because of Pakistani pressure. But after another Musharraf rival, Benazir Bhutto, was allowed to return in October, Saudi officials have pressed Pakistan about Sharif, a more conservative leader whose popularity has soared since refusing to deal with Musharraf.

The Saudi government is flying Sharif and his family to Lahore and is sending an armored vehicle to meet them at the Lahore airport, said Ahsan Iqbal, the spokesman for Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party. Sharif's supporters plan to take Sharif from the airport to a shrine and to his father's tomb, which he has never seen.

Sharif's return, in time to file election papers by tomorrow's deadline, would invigorate his party. It indicates that most opposition parties will participate in the elections, despite earlier plans for a boycott over the emergency, declared Nov. 3 by Musharraf.

In an attack about 7:45 a.m., a car rammed into a bus carrying ISI workers as it turned toward a secured compound, witnesses said. At least 16 people and the bomber died in the blast.

Two senior intelligence officers told the Associated Press that at least 35 people were killed, but Army Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad said only 18 had died. In the second attack, a car tried to ram a checkpoint near army headquarters. The driver killed himself and injured two guards.

No one claimed responsibility for the explosions, which were in Rawalpindi, near the heart of the country's military headquarters.

Kim Barker writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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