Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif was arrested and deported to Saudi Arabia on Monday within hours of arriving home from exile, vowing to end the rule of President Pervez Musharraf.
While, with the deportation, Musharraf has fended off the immediate challenge from a rival, the President is likely to face a backlash from many Pakistanis already tired of what they see as his dictatorial rule. The country, an important regional ally of the US, faces weeks of uncertainty as Musharraf attempts to secure another term.
The authorities had imposed a major clampdown before Sharif flew in from London, detaining many leaders, spokesmen and activists of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party, stopping supporters from travelling to the country’s capital and sealing off Islamabad airport.
Sharif’s party was unable to mobilize mass protests but small groups of supporters clashed with police as they tried to make their way past police barricades to get to the airport to greet their leader. Five people were hurt in an exchange of fire but protesters later dispersed.
Sharif’s supporters said they would fight the government in the courts and politically.
Army chief Musharraf is preparing to seek another term in a presidential election in the national and provincial assemblies some time between 15 September and 15 October.
A general election is due around the end of the year.
“For all practical purposes there is now martial law in Pakistan and Pervez Musharraf is the chief martial law administrator,” said Pakistan Muslim League spokesman Siddiq Farooq. “We are going to take this issue up with the Supreme Court as well as with the people of Pakistan,” he said.
The Supreme Court said last month that Sharif had the right to return and the government should not try to stop him.
Pakistan’s allies are uneasy about instability in a country on the front line of efforts to tackle terrorism. US deputy secretary of state John Negroponte is due in Pakistan for scheduled talks this week.
The European Union (EU) said the Supreme Court ruling should have been respected. “In our view the Supreme Court’s ruling is very clear and should be respected,” Christiane Hohmann, spokeswoman for the EU’s executive commission told a regular news briefing in Brussels.
Pakistan government spokesmen were not available for comment while a spokesman for Musharraf said he had nothing to do with Sharif’s treatment.
Sharif was arrested after a melee in an airport lounge where he and his supporters were taken after a tense 90-minute stand-off with authorities on board the aircraft he arrived on. He was deported to Saudi Arabia about four hours after flying into Pakistan, and Saudi sources confirmed he arrived later in the Red Sea port of Jeddah.
The sources said he would be accepted back into exile.
Another former prime minister in exile, Benazir Bhutto, is also expected to try to come home. But she is in talks with Musharraf on a pact with the president, whose popularity has slumped since he tried to fire the Supreme Court chief justice in March.
Sharif’s return from seven years in exile was always going to spark a confrontation with Musharraf, who ousted Sharif in 1999 and cast him into exile the following year. Musharraf sent Sharif to Saudi Arabia under what the government says was an agreement that he stay in exile for 10 years. In return, he avoided a life sentence on hijacking and corruption charges.
Sharif was dogged by accusations of corruption during his two terms as prime minister in the 1990s. An anti-corruption court last month reopened three cases against him.
Before his arrival, authorities had detained about 4,000 of his supporters and party leaders, as well as three leaders of an allied religious alliance, party officials said.
Police said 250 “troublemakers” had been picked up.
Five people were wounded in a clash when Sharif’s supporters tried to force their way past police on a bridge to the west of Islamabad, a witness said. Police fired teargas to disperse about 700 protesters about 3 km from the airport.
Shortly before his arrest, Sharif told Reuters he was happy to be home.
“It’s a great feeling. Up to here it’s fine but beyond, through there, I don’t know,” he said in the airport lounge, pointing to the exit.
Kamran Haider and Zeeshan Haider contributed to the story.