Britain and US in 'safe return' deal for Bhutto

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The Independent Online

The depth of British and American involvement in the deal that helps General Pervez Musharraf retain office for another five years emerged yesterday when it was revealed the two countries have worked to secure a “safe return” to Pakistan for the woman he is poised to share power with.

British and American diplomats have met with leaders of a controversial political party long at odds with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and encouraged it to show restraint when she returns to Karachi in 10 days time. The leadership of the MQM party - which earlier this year was blamed for political violence in the city which left dozens dead - has vowed to keep off the streets on the day she returns.

Details of the effort to smooth Ms Bhutto’s return came as Gen Musharraf called for national unity following the overwhelming vote that should secure him another five years as president. “A majority, a vast majority, have voted for me and therefore that result is the result,” Gen Musharraf said after winning in a vote by the national and regional assemblies.

A central part of political horse-trading before the election was a deal with Ms Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) that paves the way for her to return to Pakistan and seek an historic third term as prime minister. Ms Bhutto has expressed concern about her safety on her return, scheduled for October 18, and in preparation a bullet-proof limousine is to be flown in. In an interview with the Sunday Times, she said: “I know there are security risks, people who want to kill me and to scuttle the restoration of democracy.”

Ms Bhutto may have good reason for alarm. In May Karachi was the scene of violence when 41 people, including 11 PPP members, were killed in riots as the country’s ousted Supreme Court Chief Justice tried to enter the city. Pakistani media and human rights campaigners blamed the MQM for instigating the violence. The MQM - whose leader Altaf Hussain lives in London having left Pakistan where a warrant was issued for his arrest in connection with a murder - has denied the accusations.

A Western diplomat said British and American officials had spoken with MQM officials in Karachi, Islamabad and London to try and ensure Ms Bhutto’s return would be peaceful. “Everybody is concerned about the security when she comes back¿about herself and the whole of Karachi. Because the MQM [leadership] is based in London the British are taking the lead and the Americans are working with them,” said the diplomat.

Dr Farooq Sattar, a senior member of the MQM confirmed his party had spoken with British officials about the “political situation in the aftermath of the election”. He said he could not remember the specifics of his conversations but said the MQM had publicly undertaken not to disrupt Ms Bhutto’s return. “We will be staying off the streets,” he said.

The US and Britain have been involved helping “facilitate” the deal that will see Ms Bhutto return to Pakistan from exile in Britain. While officials say their priorities are trying to ensure stability and pushing the government to confront Islamic extremism, they say they are also keen to see Paksitan move towards democracy.

A spokesman for the British High Commission played down its role in securing the safe passage agreement. He said diplomats met with all of Pakistan’s politcal parties “as a matter of course”. However, he admitted Britain and the EU had “called on all parties to exercise restraint” on the ocassion of Ms Bhutto’s return.

What leverage may have been exercised over the MQM is a matter of speculation. However, the so-called National Reconcilation Ordinance signed by Gen Musharraf on Friday that cleared the way for Ms Bhutto’s return also wipes clear a raft of charges against other politicians, including several MQM members.

Despite the scale of Gen Musharraf’s victory, an element of uncertainty surrounds his reelection. The country’s Supreme Court has said his victory cannot be officially validated until it has heard outstanding challenges over the legality of his candidacy. It is set to hear those cases on October 17, the day before Ms Bhutto’s return.

Even if the court rules against Gen Musharraf it is hard to see how such a decision would be enforced. Asked whether he would stand down if the court ruled him ineligible, Gen Musharraf said: “Let the decision come and then we will decide.”