/ 25 March 2008

New Pakistan PM sworn in by Musharraf

Pakistan’s new prime minister was sworn in by President Pervez Musharraf on Tuesday as two senior United States envoys arrived for talks aimed at shoring up Islamabad’s role in the ”war on terror”.

Parliament picked Yousuf Raza Gilani, a key aide of slain opposition icon Benazir Bhutto, as premier on Monday and he will lead a coalition of Musharraf’s opponents who won general elections last month.

The volatile situation facing Musharraf, a vital US ally against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, was underscored when Gilani Monday freed judges whom the president detained because they threatened his grip on power.

Supporters chanted ”Long Live Bhutto” after Gilani, who spent five years in jail under Musharraf’s regime, repeated the oath read out by a grim-faced Musharraf in a ceremony at the presidential palace.

In a snub to Musharraf, key coalition leaders including Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari, her son Bilawal and former premier Nawaz Sharif stayed away from the swearing-in.

Musharraf told state television after the ceremony that he would ”always extend my fullest cooperation” to Gilani, saying the country faced a ”difficult period” from Islamic militancy.

Gilani, standing at his side, called on all political forces to work together ”in unity” for the good of the country.

After the ceremony US President George Bush telephoned Gilani to congratulate him on assuming office, a Pakistani official said.

Bush spoke on the importance of the fight against terrorism and expressed his readiness to work with the new leader, the White House later said.

”He reiterated that Pakistan is an important ally and country, and the two leaders agreed that fighting extremists is in everyone’s interest,” spokesperson Dana Perino told reporters.

Analysts say the US is desperate to woo the new government despite its hostility to Musharraf, fearing that political instability in the nuclear-armed nation will hurt efforts to tackle Islamic militancy.

US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher held talks with Musharraf for 90 minutes, but also met Sharif and were due to visit Gilani, officials said.

Washington has propped up Musharraf, a former general who seized power in a coup in 1999, ever since he supported the US-led invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

Musharraf’s position weakened when he quit as army chief in November and he has become increasingly isolated.

Sharif said he told Negroponte that the government would review Musharraf’s cooperation with the United States, saying he wanted to curb militancy but that he did not want the country to become a ”murder-house”.

He also reiterated calls for Musharraf to step down, saying that the president ”used the ‘war on terrorism’ to perpetuate his rule. No Cabinet and no Parliament was taken into confidence in any of his decisions”.

His comments came amid US jitters over a New York Times report at the weekend that said that Zardari and Sharif intend to start negotiations with militants in the hope of ending recent violence.

Bhutto was assassinated in December in one of a wave of suicide attacks that has rocked Pakistan over the past year.

In other international reaction, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown separately offered Gilani his ”full support”, while the German government urged him to pursue democratic reforms.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who also spoke to Gilani, told him ”India wants to strengthen bilateral relations with Pakistan and would continue the policy it followed with earlier governments including the government of Nawaz Sharif,” officials here said.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in a statement that he hoped Gilani’s election would lead to closer cooperation against extremism.

Meanwhile Pakistan’s deposed chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was meeting lawyers and well-wishers on Tuesday after Gilani ordered the release of all judges detained by Musharraf under a state of emergency in November.

The coalition has vowed to pass a law reinstating the sacked judges within 30 days.

Musharraf ousted the judges when it looked like the Supreme Court might overturn his October re-election as president. If the judges are reinstated, they could rule his re-election illegal. – AFP