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Ex-PM in gamble to galvanise party

Sharif and his daughter Maryam on a Lahore-bound flight from Abu Dhabi International Airport on Friday. (Reuters)

Lahore: Ousted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam were arrested on Friday after flying back to the country to face lengthy prison sentences, in a high-stakes gamble to galvanise their beleaguered party ahead of a July 25 election.

Uniformed men escorted the Sharifs, who were sentenced in absentia on corruption charges last week, from their airplane after it touched down in the central city of Lahore at around 1645GMT, a Reuters reporter on board said.

They were shifted to Adiala jail in Rawalpindi in separate armoured vehicles escorted by the police. According to the jail manual, the Sharifs can be medically examined at the jail hospital. Maryam is expected to be moved later to the Sihala Rest House which has been declared as sub-jail.

A spokesman for Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party confirmed they were arrested soon afterwards. Local Geo TV said Sharif and his daughter were taken to another waiting aircraft to be flown out of Lahore, where more than 10,000 Sharif supporters were gathered to greet him.

Their return could shake up an election race marred by accusations that Pakistan's powerful military is working behind the scenes to skew the contest in favour of ex-cricket hero Imran Khan, who describes Sharif as a "criminal" who deserves no support.

Clashes broke out on Friday evening at the main highway entry point to Lahore between pro-Sharif protesters and police who had been deployed in their thousands, a Reuters witness said. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

Mobile phone service had been cut off in mid-afternoon, as Sharif's brother, Shahbaz, led around 10,000 party supporters on a march towards the city centre in defiance of a citywide ban on public gatherings, according to a witness.

Nawaz Sharif decried the tactics ordered by the caretaker government that took over in June ahead of the general election, as Pakistan's Constitution requires.

"What credibility will these elections have when the government is taking such a drastic action against our people and this crackdown is taking place all over the country?" he told Reuters at the airport in Abu Dhabi as he waited for a connecting flight to Lahore.

Pakistan's third major political movement, the Pakistan People's Party, joined the criticism of the crackdown, with its Prime Ministerial candidate Bilawal Bhutto Zardari questioning why Sharif's supporters would be prevented from gathering.

"Why is Lahore under siege? Right to peaceful protest is fundamental for democracy," tweeted Bilawal Zardari, the son of two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated at a political rally in 2007.

The country's media regulator warned local news channels to abstain from airing statements "by political leadership containing defamatory and derogatory content targeting various state institutions specifically judiciary and armed forces", the regulator said in a statement.

After the Supreme Court ousted Sharif last July, the courts barred him from heading the PML-N party he founded. His brother Shahbaz became PML-N's president, but Sharif remains the power behind the throne. Reuters

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