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Pakistan's Sharif Ejected After Return from Exile

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

One of Pakistan's former prime ministers returned home from exile today. And within a very short time he was sent back out of the country once again. Nawaz Sharif was deposed in a 1999 coup by President Pervez Musharraf. He said he was returning to the country to challenge Musharraf. And last month Pakistan's supreme court ruled that Nawaz Sharif had the right to return home; apparently, though, not for long.

We go now to NPR's Philip Reeves, who's covering the story from Islamabad. Would you just describe the sequence of events here, please?

PHILIP REEVES: Well, as we understand it, when Nawaz Sharif's flight, a Pakistan International Airways flight from London, touched down, the plane was surrounded at Islamabad Airport by commandos. And there was - we're told - something of a stand off onboard which lasted nearly two hours, in which Sharif refused to hand over his passport to immigration officials.

Eventually he did agreed to leave and he was escorted into the airport building and went to the VIP lounge, where there was some talks and negotiations. And then he was separated from the entourage, returned airside, put on board a helicopter and whisked off to a plane, which is, we've been told by sources in Saudi Arabia and in Pakistan, is destined for Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.

INSKEEP: Do you have any idea, Philip, under what basis the Pakistani government sent him back out of the country again if Pakistan's supreme court say he can come back?

REEVES: This is going to be the basis of a very significant conflict, I think, between the government of Pakistan and the supreme court because the supreme court had stated that Mr. Sharif has an unalienable right, as it termed it legally, to come back to Pakistan, and it also said that the government should not obstruct him in doing so.

There is, however, another document in play and that is one that both the Saudis and the Pakistani governments say that Sharif made and which was brokered by the Saudis, and that was an agreement made when he left the country, going into exile in the year 2000, to stay away from Pakistan for 10 years.

Sharif argues that the agreement has expired and that it was only a five-year agreement. The Pakistani government and the Saudis, significantly, say that it's got another couple of years to run.

INSKEEP: Now, I suppose we should mention that this is all happening at a time of turmoil in Pakistan. The president, Pervez Musharraf, is under a great deal of pressure, facing the strongest protests of his military rule. Sharif wanted to factor into that and return to contest elections this fall. What has happened to his supporters within the country?

REEVES: They have in significant numbers being arrested ahead of the arrival of Mr. Sharif today, certainly hundreds were. And an extremely intense security operation was raised to make sure that they didn't turn out in the streets to attempt to get to the airport and welcome Sharif into Pakistan, even though in the end Sharif only spent less than five hours in the country.

INSKEEP: Sounds like President Pervez Musharraf certainly was worried about what Sharif and his supporters might do.

REEVES: He, I think, was worried, and I think he will be worried. I suspect that the supporters of Sharif haven't, by any means, decided to let this matter drop and will let their feelings be known about it, perhaps later in the day, certainly within the next few days.

And indeed, it is - you know, the latest installment, as you point out, in a series of crises for Musharraf, which were, many believe here, of originally his own making, when he decided to suspend the chief justice. Since then, we've had the standoff and then the storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, with the loss of more than a hundred lives. We've had a sudden spike in the number of bombings and attacks, particularly in the northwest of Pakistan, a general rise in instability. And now the opposition forces, with this latest chapter being played out here, have new momentum.

INSKEEP: We've been listening to NPR's Philip Reeves in Islamabad, where a former Pakistani prime minister returned from exile only to be deported again today.

Philip, thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.

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