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Sharif gets a poll opening

Lahore, Aug. 29 (Reuters): Pakistani election officials have given preliminary approval to ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to contest October general elections, his party said today.

However, Sharif’s candidacy still requires formal approval from the national Election Commission following an objection and appeals process lasting until September 12, poll officials said.

Gen. Pervez Musharraf has said Sharif and another former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, would be arrested if they tried to return from exile for the October 10 elections.

An official in Sharif’s home city of Lahore said that local returning officer Shaukat Iqbal Cheema accepted Sharif’s nomination as “no objection was raised against it”.

He said nominations for Sharif’s wife Kulsoom Sharif and brother Shahbaz Sharif were also accepted.

An election official will decide whether to accept Bhutto’s nomination tomorrow in her home town of Larkana in the southern province of Sindh.

Her party issued a statement welcoming the acceptance of the nomination of Sharif, a one-time bitter rival who has become an ally in adversity.

It expressed hope that Bhutto’s nomination would also be accepted.

A spokesman for Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League called on the military government to let the former ruling family return home to run their election campaign.

“After the acceptance of nomination papers, it has now become all the more necessary for Nawaz, Shahbaz and Kulsoom to return to their country,” spokesman Siddiq-ul-Farooq said.

Musharraf says the Sharif family made a promise to stay out of politics for 10 years when the former prime minister went into exile in Saudi Arabia after he was overthrown in a bloodless coup in 1999. The family denies this.

Newspapers carried reports today saying a special envoy of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah met Musharraf yesterday and assured him the Sharifs would not return.

A Saudi embassy spokesman in Islamabad said he had no information on the issue.

Farooq said Sharif and his family were eager to return home.

“They can return home anytime,” he said without saying when they might try to do so.

Sharif and Bhutto face corruption charges in Pakistan and have been effectively barred from running by electoral laws introduced by the military government, including one that says prime ministers can serve no more than two terms.

Both Bhutto and Sharif have been prime minister twice.

Sharif last month had appeared to bow out of the election by handing over the reins of his party to Shahbaz, who also faces corruption charges in Pakistan.

Last week, Musharraf unveiled constitutional changes that will enable him to wield overriding power even after a civilian government is elected.

The changes, denounced by the opposition, give him the power to dismiss parliament and provide for him to chair a civilian-military National Security Council to oversee government.

Leaders of a coalition of Islamic fundamentalist parties postponed the second leg of their parliamentary campaign launch today after the government warned against using passenger trains for political rallies.

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