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London: Pakistani opposition leaders on 8 July called for President Pervez Musharraf to resign and for former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to be permitted to return to the country.

In a joint declaration issued at the end of a weekend conference in London, the All Parties Conference (APC) said that Musharraf’s military rule had “brought Pakistan to the edge of a precipice, leading to strife, chaos and the threat of disintegration."

“Parliament has been marginalised, and stripped of all its powers ... Both houses (of parliament) have been reduced to a rubber stamp for the Chief of Army Staff who unconstitutionally occupies the Office of the President," the declaration continued.

The conference came amid increasing domestic turmoil in Pakistan, as authorities in Islamabad on 8 July moved closer to an all-out raid on the beseiged Red Mosque after officials said Al-Qaeda-linked rebels had seized control and may start killing hostages.

According to government estimates, at least 24 people have been killed in the six days since the siege of the mosque began. The mosque’s firebrand deputy leader, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, however told local television that 335 people had died in Sunday’s fighting alone.

The siege comes after months of rioting over Musharraf’s suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in March, which sparked the biggest crisis of the president’s time in power.

The London conference was hosted by Sharif and also featured opposition leaders Imran Khan, Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, Qazi Hussain Ahmed and Amin Fahim, vice-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

PPP leader Bhutto did not attend, despite being invited.

The declaration “talks about struggle against dictatorship, the need to restore constitutional rule in Pakistan, and it shows the commitment of the parties to achieving those ends," Nadir Chaudri, Sharif’s spokesman, told AFP.

Chaudri said that of the 38 parties represented at the conference, all but one agreed to have all of its MPs in parliament resign were Musharraf to follow through with plans to get himself re-elected by the current parliament before polls due later this year or in early 2008.

Only the PPP did not agree, deciding it would reserve its decision for when Musharraf actually went to parliament.

The APC called for Musharraf to resign because it was “clear that the Musharraf regime is incapable of holding free, fair and honest elections."

Following that, the APC said there should be a general election under a neutral caretaker government.

It added that it would fight to ensure that exiled former prime ministers Sharif and Bhutto, who twice governed Pakistan before Musharraf led a military coup in 1999, were allowed back into the country.

Chaudri told AFP that “the whole conference was unanimous in opposing the military dictatorship. There were only different approaches to achieving that end."

The 16-point declaration also called for the reinstatement of suspended Chief Justice Chaudhry and pledged to press for full freedom of the media and freedom of expression.

Chaudri told AFP that Sharif said he would not be a candidate for prime minister if the proposed alliance defeats Musharraf at the polls and that it would serve as an interim administration for one to two years, going as far as to suggest that the conference could decide on a candidate for prime minister.

Sharif’s camp says the event is a unique event bringing together a broad spectrum of political opinion from Pakistan for the first time.


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