| US deputy secretary of state John Negroponte with Pakistan foreign minister Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri in Islamabad on Wednesday. (AFP)
Islamabad, Sept. 12 (Reuters): The US said Pakistan needed a “democratic political transition” today after President Pervez Musharraf’s government blocked former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s return from exile.
Authorities dispatched Sharif back into exile on Monday despite his having supreme court clearance to return to Pakistan, reinforcing perceptions that US ally Musharraf’s grip on power is becoming more desperate with elections looming.
Commandos bundled the man Musharraf overthrew in a bloodless coup in 1999 onto a Saudi-bound plane hours after he arrived from London on Monday. Hundreds of Sharif’s party workers were detained to prevent any mass show of support.
US deputy secretary of state John Negroponte — on a visit scheduled months ago to meet Musharraf and other officials — said Sharif’s treatment was “an internal Pakistani political and legal matter”. But he said Pakistan was at a critical juncture and the US expected change in the country of 160 million people, which the army general has ruled for eight years.
“We look forward to democratic elections being held in Pakistan here quite shortly,” he said at a joint news conference with Pakistani foreign secretary Riaz Mohammad Khan hours after arriving in the Pakistani capital.
“We think it’s important that there be a smooth and democratic political transition.” Negroponte is likely to meet Musharraf tomorrow
Today’s talks focused on the US developing a long-term relationship with Islamabad in the areas of economy, energy, security, technology and education. But US policy makers are also closely watching the nuclear-armed state’s efforts to contain Islamist militias allied to al Qaida.
Adding to Musharraf’s woes, there has been a surge in suicide attacks on security forces this year.
Today, his army said it had killed up to 40 militants in a ground and air attack on hideouts in the mountains of North Waziristan, a tribal region bordering Afghanistan.
Earlier in the day, pro-Taliban militants in nearby town of Bannu captured 12 soldiers. They are now holding more than 250 troops, all taken hostage since late last month.
Negroponte noted Pakistan had lost more than 1,000 soldiers fighting terrorism since 2001 and had deployed more troops in tribal areas along the Afghan border. He sought to allay Pakistani misgivings over a law making future US aid dependent on certification of progress in fighting the militants. “I don’t think there’s going to be any difficulty in making that kind of certification,” he said.
The US is believed to be encouraging efforts by progressive-minded Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, leader of Pakistan’s most most liberal and single largest party, to forge an alliance against religious conservative forces.
Sharif’s party, while mainstream, is more conservative.
Musharraf needs support from Bhutto, who has also lived in exile for the past eight years, to win re-election in the next month by the sitting national and provincial assemblies before they are dissolved for the parliamentary polls.