Army seizes power in Pakistan

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PAKISTAN'S nuclear-equipped army last night said it had "dismissed" the government of the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, after a coup in which troops seized government buildings in the capital, Islamabad.

PAKISTAN'S nuclear-equipped army last night said it had "dismissed" the government of the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, after a coup in which troops seized government buildings in the capital, Islamabad.

The announcement on Pakistan Television (PTV) was followed by an address to the nation by General Pervez Musharraf, who earlier yesterday had been sacked as chief of army staff by Mr Sharif. The general said troops staged the coup as a "last resort", accusing the ousted democratically elected government of "systematically destroying" state institutions and driving the economy towards collapse.

"You are all well aware of the kind of turmoil and uncertainty that our country has gone through," General Musharraf said, giving no indication of whether the army would relinquish control. He would issue a policy statement "very soon".

The ending of Pakistan's 12-year experiment with democracy, three months after it stepped back from the brink of all-out war with India, put fresh strains on the world's most dangerous nuclear flashpoint. India's army was put on a state of high alert but elsewhere reaction was muted.

The Pakistani media said Mian Azhar, former senior vice-president of Mr Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, was to be the new prime minister.

The US State Department said: "If there has been a coup we would obviously seek the earliest possible restoration of democracy." Britain advised its nationals in Pakistan to "adopt a low profile".

Yesterday's drama began after a newscaster on the rigidly state-controlled PTV broadcast news that General Musharraf had been sacked. The army apparently asked the station not to repeat the bulletin, but it did so twice. It was also reported that Mr Sharif was preparing to go to the studio to make a broadcast to the nation. But before the bulletin could be repeated a third time or Mr Sharif could take the initiative, 20 troops scaled the wall of the television station and a major told them to "take it over." After that, at about 7pm local time (3pm BST),transmission ceased. A PTV official said: "The Prime Minister was due to come here but I don't think he will now that the army has taken it over."

Troops surrounded Mr Sharif's residence in Islamabad, placing him under house arrest. Witnesses reported hearing shots in the vicinity.

Pakistan's international airports in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi were closed by the military, and the mobile-phone network and most international lines were shut down.

In Lahore, Mr Sharif's home city, soldiers in Jeeps took up positions along the main road and at government buildings.

General Musharraf, who was behind the ill-fated attempted invasion of Indian Kashmir this summer, had been on an official visit to Sri Lanka and was returning home when it was announced he had been sacked.Tension between the army and Mr Sharif had been high since July, when the Prime Minster buckled under pressure from the US and India and ordered that his country's troops - acting under the guise of mujahedin, freelance Islamic guerrillas - be pulled back from the Indian side of the ceasefire line in Kargil, Kashmir. This ended a two-month conflict and averted a full-scale war, but at the cost of deep anger within Pakistan. Relations between the army and the government are said to have been worsening and the US became so concerned that on 20 September officials said: "We would strongly oppose any attempt to change the government through extra-constitutional means."

Mr Sharif attempted to mollify the army by extending General Musharraf's term by a year. But there has been a shuttling of army chiefs between Islamabad and Washington, including a secret visit last month by General Zia Uddin, head of the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency. Mr Sharif had decided to appoint General Uddin in place of General Musharraf. On Saturday General Musharraf reportedly sacked an army commander, General Tariq Pervaiz, after the latter metMr Sharif.

Speaking from London, the leader of the opposition in Pakistan's parliament, Benazir Bhutto, said her country had been plunged into civil war, and blamed Mr Sharif. "The Prime Minister treats the country like a family corporation," she said. "He has sought to attack everyone: the judiciary, the parliament, the presidency, the press and the opposition. When he attacked the army it was felt that he was politicising the army, which was the last untouched institution in the country."