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Benazir tells Pervez to shed uniform

Islamabad, July 29 (AP): Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf must quit his military post if he is to continue as Pakistan’s ruler, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said today, after officials confirmed the two held secret talks on a possible power-sharing pact.

Bhutto, the exiled leader of Pakistan’s largest Opposition party, also said she was interested in returning to the country and becoming its Premier for a third time if the opportunity presented itself.

In several interviews today, Bhutto would not confirm or deny she held talks with Musharraf in a meeting that officials said took place on Friday in the Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi. Musharraf, who returned overnight from a two-day lightning visit to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, also stayed silent on the issue.

But Bhutto said her Pakistan People’s Party had long been in talks with the government about restoring civilian rule.

“We have already said that our negotiations are going on and we have achieved forward movement on some matters,” Bhutto told Pakistan’s Geo television. “But there are some matters on which there are two opinions and we have to look further into these issues.”

Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, and Bhutto are widely reported to be working on an alliance designed to bolster the increasingly embattled President’s political strength while allowing the Opposition leader to return home and become Prime Minister for the third time.

A key sticking point has been Musharraf’s reluctance to resign from the army — the source of his greatest strength — to meet Opposition groups’ demands of a return to civilian rule.

“We do not accept President Musharraf in uniform,” Bhutto told KTN television. “Our stand is that, and I stick to my stand.”

Musharraf had no immediate comment, his spokesperson Major General Rashid Qureshi said today.

An alliance between the two could strengthen Musharraf by bringing the secular, liberal opposition into his government amid growing concern about a rise in Islamic militancy, a move Pakistan’s Western allies would welcome.

Bhutto, who has previously condemned Musharraf as a dictator, told Sky News in Britain she was interested in becoming Prime Minister again.

“If the people of Pakistan vote for me, certainly I would like to take on that job,” she said.

“We stand at the crossroads, and very critical choices have to be made between the forces of the past and the forces of the future,” she said. “There is militancy, terrorism and violence. My government and I have had the experience of dealing with it, if we get another opportunity, I would certainly take the challenge.”

A deal that resulted in Musharraf giving up his military title would also likely be welcomed by Washington as a step toward restoring civilian rule, said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a politics professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

“They want to strengthen Musharraf who has been supporting the war on terrorism, and his further weakening would damage their cause in Afghanistan,” Rais said. “They (also) want peaceful transition in Pakistan to elected government.”

Minister for railways Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said Musharraf and Bhutto “held a successful meeting” in Abu Dhabi on Friday, without elaborating. He also said Friday’s meeting was the second meeting of the leaders, the first being in January.

Musharraf is expected to seek re-election when his term expires in October.

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