| Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s supporters at a rally in Lahore on Thursday with a lion. Sharif had used the lion as a symbol in previous elections. (AP)
London, Aug. 30 (Reuters): Pakistan’s exiled former leader, Nawaz Sharif, announced today he would return home on September 10 to challenge what he called the illegitimate rule of President Pervez Musharraf.
Sharif, ousted as Prime Minister in a 1999 coup by Musharraf, told a news conference it was his duty to return and challenge the “atrocities and brutalities” of the government.
After he was overthrown, Sharif was sentenced to life in prison on graft and security charges. Exiled in 2000, he risks arrest when he goes back to Pakistan. “Inshallah (God willing), I will return to Islamabad on September 10,” Sharif said. He wants to return to the city he left from eight years ago before travelling to his home city of Lahore.
“Why am I going back' To respond to the call of duty ... To achieve the supremacy of the rule of law and the constitution and to rid my people of dictatorship forever.”
Another former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, said yesterday she had almost sealed a power-sharing deal with Musharraf under which he will quit as Pakistan's army chief, possibly before he seeks re-election next month.
But a spokesman for the President said today Musharraf had yet to decide whether to step down as army chief and try to become a civilian president.
In a veiled reference to Bhutto, Sharif rejected political manoeuvring and said it was wrong to make political deals with the current, discredited administration.
“This man Musharraf is on his way out. No one should try to rescue him and no one should try to rescue his sinking ship for personal motives,” Sharif said.
Pakistan’s supreme court ruled last week that Sharif, a two-time Prime Minister, should be allowed to return.
He has vowed to oppose a bid by Musharraf for another term as President. The Pakistan strongman wants to be re-elected by national and provincial Assemblies between mid-September and mid-October.
“We want a real democracy,” Sharif said. “A Pakistan without Musharraf will be a more peaceful, stable and democratic country.”
During his exile, Sharif had repeatedly vowed to return to Pakistan although Musharraf said Sharif and his brother were exiled for 10 years. With his term coming to an end and his popularity plummeting, Musharraf has turned to Bhutto for help to shore up his position. His aides are meeting with the two-time Prime Minister in London.
Bhutto has insisted an agreement would hinge on Musharraf stepping down as chief of the army, which has ruled for more than half Pakistan's history since independence in 1947.
Western governments are closely following the turbulence in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state whose support is critical to fighting al Qaida and defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Security officials said today they feared scores of Pakistani paramilitary soldiers had been kidnapped by pro-Taliban insurgents after they went missing in a region near the Afghan border.
The men disappeared while travelling in trucks to the town of Ladha, 40 km north of Wana, the main town in South Waziristan. “They’re missing. We’ve had no contact with them since 0900 GMT,” a military official said.