Return of rival ups stakes in Pakistan's power struggle

Exiled opposition leader Nawaz Sharif upped the stakes in Pakistan’s turbulent power struggle on Thursday by vowing to return home in two weeks to challenge the President, Pervez Musharraf, despite threats of arrest.

“This man Musharraf is on his way out ... We will be launching a movement against Mr Musharraf and his government,” Sharif told reporters in London.

He said he would fly to Islamabad on September 10.

The gambit by Sharif, who has twice been prime minister, increases the urgency of power-sharing talks between Musharraf and the other opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto, which remain on a knife edge.

On Thursday several government officials denied claims by Bhutto that the general had agreed to resign from the army before elections.

“No decision has been made,” said the Information Minister, Muhammad Ali Durrani, at a press conference. “If anyone else says something about this, it is just their own opinion.”

The jostling may determine the next government of Pakistan, a country of intense interest to western countries fearful of Islamist violence and al-Qaeda militants sheltering inside its borders.
Further evidence of deep instability emerged again on Thursday night when more than 100 soldiers were apparently kidnapped by militants who ambushed a large convoy of military vehicles in the north-west.

British and US officials are playing a back-room role in the Musharraf-Bhutto talks. But their plans are complicated by Sharif’s sudden re-emergence.

He was thrust into the spotlight by last week’s supreme court ruling that he has an “inalienable” right of return, and his supporters are preparing a tumultuous welcome.

The government will try to dissuade him. The attorney general, Malik Qayyum, said Sharif could be arrested on charges stretching back to 1999, when he was ousted in a military coup and charged with treason.

Bhutto’s party leadership is due to meet on Friday afternoon to decide whether to sign a deal with the military leader, or go it alone. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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