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Pakistani Officials Deny Political Deal With Exiled Opposition Leader

Pakistani officials are denying widespread rumors that the government may be negotiating a possible deal for the return of exiled opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. From Islamabad, VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports on the mounting speculation of a possible blockbuster political settlement.

Government officials are working overtime trying to silence the growing media frenzy. Talk of secret negotiations between Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and his chief political rival, Benazir Bhutto, have been dominating the headlines.

Mr. Musharraf released a statement Sunday insisting there was no deal in the works.

State Minister of Information Tariq Azim Monday confirmed talks had taken place but said there was no change in government policy toward the former Prime Minister.

"She's very keen to come to an arrangement [and] have some rapprochement with the president but as far as the government is concerned, there is no deal for her," he said.

A Bhutto spokesman also denied any political compromise.

The rumors started late last week after the government transferred a veteran anti-corruption investigator who was handling several major cases targeting Bhutto.

Bhutto still runs Pakistan's main opposition party, but fled Pakistan in 1999 to avoid corruption and graft charges stemming from her time in office.

The investigator's removal fueled speculation that Musharraf may allow Bhutto to re-enter Pakistan and possibly even help form a new coalition government.

The speculation comes as president Musharraf faces one of the toughest political fights of his career. The embattled president is on the defensive after removing the country's top judge several weeks ago, a move that sparked massive protests around the country.

Former senator Shafqat Mahmood says now, more than ever, Musharraf may be looking for new political allies to help protect his hold on power.

"Earlier on, before this movement started the differences between the two seemed unbridgeable, but now, with the weakening of Musharraf, people speculate the possibility of a deal is much greater," said Mahmood.

Political analysts say the controversy has re-energized the opposition, which could now make significant gains in national elections expected within the next 12 months.

Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party won the most votes in 2002 parliamentary elections and she still wields tremendous popular support throughout much of Pakistan. She twice served as Prime Minister and so is not eligible for a third term. Analysts note however that if a political deal was reached, it could allow Bhutto to nominate an ally, making new alignments possible.