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Sharif's Return to Pakistan Poses Challenges


Pakistan is stepping airport security, banning rallies and rounding up hundreds of activist today. The government is preparing for the planned return of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who's expected to arrive in Islamabad tomorrow. He says he'll campaign against President Pervez Musharraf. It's a friendly rivalry. Musharraf ousted Sharif's selected government in 1999.

Sharif's return could post a major challenge to Musharraf's somewhat shaky hold on power. NPR's Philip Reeves reports from Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

PHILIP REEVES: This is the house of an angry family. The police dropped by two days ago.

Ms. SYDRU BANKS(ph) (Rawalpindi, Pakistan): (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Sydru Banks says they arrested her father, brother and cousin and whisks them off to prison.

The family shows me police paperwork. The documents alleged the three men were involved in illegal-political agitation here in Rawalpindi. Sydru Banks says there's one reason her relatives were jailed: They're supporters of Nawaz Sharif's political party.

Ms. BANKS: (Through translator) Obviously and naturally, we're very angry with the way our - my brother, my father and the cousin are being treated.

REEVES: The arrest are part of a round-up that's being going on in Pakistan for several days. It's especially apparent in Sharif's home province and stronghold, Punjab. Officials from Sharif's party say hundreds of activists were being detained ahead of his expected arrival.

Sharif's people consider the crackdown an attempt by Musharraf to stop Pakistanis from turning out on mass to welcome the former prime minister. Pakistan's federal government denies it's rounding up people. It says, any arrest are the work of provincial police. Sydru Banks says that makes little difference to her and her family.

Ms. BANKS: (Through translator) People here are upset and so frightened and scared, you know. They are so scared. The police told us that even - we will pick up all your kids from here. All family members.

REEVES: Musharraf deposed Nawaz Sharif in a coup either years ago. Sharif was give a life sentence for refusing to allow a plane carrying Musharraf to land. Yet, the following year, Sharif was allowed to go into exile in Saudi Arabia. Pakistan says Sharif signed a 10-year-agreement with the Saudis to remain in exile. Sharif denies it.

But yesterday, the head of Saudi intelligence Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, showed the news media a copy of what he said was the exile agreement.

Prince MUQRAN BIN ABDUL AZIZ (Director General, General Intelligence Directorate, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia): We're really hoping that His Excellency, Nawaz Sharif, honors this agreement.

Mr. Nawaz Sharif (Former Prime Minister, Pakistan): (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Soon afterwards, Pakistani TV viewers heard Sharif's voice on a crackling line from his London base. Sharif said he's coming home.

Mr. SHARIF: We want to ensure the restoration of rule of law. We want to ensure…

REEVES: Sharif is an improbable people's hero. He's from a wealthy family of industrialists, and he's a protege of an earlier military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq. Sharif's two governments were widely considered corrupt and inept. Most Pakistanis were glad to see him go. Now Sharif's back at the top of the polls because he's challenging Musharraf. He also boasts he is refusing to negotiate with Musharraf's government, unlike another former prime minister with ambitions to come back, Benazir Bhutto.

Sharif plans to return with his politician brother, Shahbaz, who was also exiled. The brothers' return was made possible by a supreme court ruling that declared that the government can't stop them coming home. But Nawaz Sharif and his brother face the possibility of arrest when they get off the plane.

Raja Zafar-ul-Haq is a senior official from Sharif's party. He says any attempt by Musharraf to obstruct either man would backfire.

Mr. RAJA ZAFAR-UL-HAQ (Chairman, Pakistan Muslim League): If the government does anything against Mian Nawaz Sharif and Mian Shahbaz Sharif, they would accelerate the process of their own demise.

REEVES: Pakistan's news media are bombarding information minister Tariq Azeem with questions about how the government will react to Sharif's expected return. Azeem is evasive.

Senator TARIQ AZEEM KHAN (Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, Pakistan): What happens on Monday will be purely a matter of the law. I mean, I cannot say what will happen.

(Soundbite of reporters asking questions)

REEVES: Back in Rawalpindi, Sidra Baig(ph) and her family are watching events unfold. She says so far, the government strategy of arrests and crackdowns isn't working.

Ms. Sidra Baig (Resident, Rawalpindi): Now every kid is determined to receive Nawaz Sharif, and students from the colleges. They will go to receive him. Ten times more people will not.

REEVES: Nawaz Sharif says he'll arrive in Pakistan tomorrow. He will undoubtedly be stepping into and contributing to a political firestorm.

Phillip Reeves, NPR News, Rawalpindi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.