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Pakistan Strengthens Security Ahead of  Former Prime Minister's Return


Pakistan has tightened security at all major airports and banned rallies one day before the arrival of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the leader deposed by Pakistan President Musharraf. As of last reports, Mr. Sharif is about to arrive in Pakistan. Thousands of Sharif supporters were expected to converge at the capital's airport to welcome their leader and his brother, who may face arrest or deportation. Daniel Schearf reports for VOA from Islamabad.

Pakistan's information minister Tariq Azim confirmed Sunday security has been tightened around the capital airport just outside of Islamabad. He said only small groups of people would be allowed to greet former prime minister Nawaz Sharif when he arrives Monday morning.

"If there's a situation where there is a large number of people, and especially if we see the repeat of performance as has happened a couple of times when political leaders had arrived and there was a lot of damage to the property and airport terminal itself, I think police will have to take necessary steps to avoid that happening again," said Azim.

Mr. Sharif is returning to Pakistan to try to defeat Mr. Musharraf, who he has called a "dictator," in upcoming elections.

President Musharraf ousted Mr. Sharif in a 1999 coup on corruption charges but allowed him to go into exile in Saudi Arabia after he signed an agreement to stay away from Pakistan for ten years. Mr. Sharif Saturday admitted he signed the agreement but said he made an oral agreement to stay away for only five years.

Authorities have reopened the corruption charges against Mr. Sharif and his family and have indicated they may arrest the former leader if he returns to Pakistan along with his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, a former chief minister of Punjab province who authorities have connected to a murder case.

The Sharif brothers plan to lead a convoy of supporters from Islamabad to their political stronghold in the southern city of Lahore.

Mr. Sharif's political party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), says the government has arrested over two thousand of their party members in the lead-up to Mr. Sharif's arrival.

However, information minister Azim says those claims are exaggerated and, contrary to indications by some officials, he says the government has no plans to arrest Mr. Sharif or his family.

"I think given normal circumstances there shouldn't be any problem for him to proceed to Lahore as he is planning to do," he said.

Leaders of the political party of embattled President Musharraf, the PML-Q, on Saturday said the government should not interfere with Mr. Sharif's return as it could cause a disruption and make him out to be a hero.

Many of Mr. Musharraf's political party are made up of former Sharif supporters.

Mr. Musharraf, who is supported by the United States as a strong ally against terrorism, is seeking to extend his leadership despite concerns it would violate the constitution. Mr. Musharraf lost much public support after a failed attempt to eliminate opposition to his continued leadership by firing the chief justice earlier this year.

The Supreme Court last month ruled the Sharifs were free to enter Pakistan and should not be obstructed by the government.

Mr. Sharif's arrival may steal the spotlight from another ousted former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, who is trying to broker a power-sharing agreement with Mr. Musharraf.

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