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Pakistani Officials: Musharraf And Rival Former PM Benazir Bhutto Met in Secret

  • Benjamin Sand

Government officials in Pakistan acknowledged Saturday that the country's president, General Pervez Musharraf, held secret talks with his political arch-rival Benazir Bhutto Friday. From Islamabad, VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports both leaders are under growing pressure to forge a breakthrough power-sharing deal to help stabilize the country.

Senior officials say the president and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto met in the Gulf Emirate of Abu Dhabi Friday.

Minister of Railways Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said the talks were "successful" but offered no further details.

It was the first official, or even semi-official, meeting between the two political rivals since 1999, when Mr. Musharraf took over Pakistan in a relatively bloodless military coup.

The president's allies quickly dismissed reports of a major blockbuster deal in the next few days.

State Minister of Information Tariq Azim says it will take many days, and many more talks, before something substantive might emerge.

"In order to get a deal happening it will have to be done in Islamabad, not in Dubai," he said. "She cannot deliver a deal. The deal will only be delivered [when] the other parties come on board, for example the PMLQ, which is the largest party."

But such direct and open talk of any deal is a major step for the administration. Until recently, Mr. Musharraf insisted Ms. Bhutto, who lives in self-imposed exile in London, would not be allowed to return to Pakistan.

She served twice as prime minister, in the 1980s and 1990s, but fled the country ahead of major corruption charges.

Ms. Bhutto is reportedly pushing for a return as prime minister in a deal that would allow Mr. Musharraf to keep his role as president. But people within Ms. Bhutto's party say she would insist that he give up his military post.

While the two remain personal foes, political analysts say they actually share a similar political agenda: better ties with the United States, more rights for women and an end to militant extremism.

The talks come as the president faces mounting opposition from all sides.

Hardline religious groups are calling for his death after government forces raided a pro-Taleban mosque in central Islamabad last week, leaving at least 100 people dead.

A recent series of suicide bomb attacks, in the capital and around the country, have killed more than 200 people and reinforced a sense of looming catastrophe.

Meanwhile, moderates are demanding the president's resignation after he tried to force the country's top judge, a noted critic, off the Supreme Court.

And Pakistan's chief international ally, the United States, is also exerting pressure on the president to do more to combat Taleban and al-Qaida militants operating along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

With national elections expected later this year, friends and foe alike are telling the embattled president that a deal with Benazir Bhutto may be his best option, and potentially his last option for staying in power.

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