General reveals Sharif 'plot' to have him killed

Musharraf tells how plane was refused permission to land, as Britain halts aid and calls for arms embargo grow
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"NOBODY WOULD ever have thought of Pervez Musharraf as a coup leader," a historian of Pakistan's army wrote in a newspaper here on Thursday, "not in a thousand years."

"NOBODY WOULD ever have thought of Pervez Musharraf as a coup leader," a historian of Pakistan's army wrote in a newspaper here on Thursday, "not in a thousand years."

Pakistan's military strongman is a former artillery and commando officer and was decorated for bravery during two wars with India. He a soldier's soldier, credited, with his deputy and friend, Lieutenant-General Mohammed Aziz, with the detailed planning of this year's border war with India.

But in experience and temperament he is far removed from the Byzantine world of Islamabad politics. As a Mohajir, a migrant from India, he has no natural affinity with Islamabad's Punjabi élite.

Yet he can shape events, as he showed on Tuesday. Details of what happened on the Pakistan International Airlines Boeing from Colombo is fuzzy, but General Musharraf says the deposed prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, tried to kill him and the other 229 passengers.

As the plane approached Pakistan, the pilot was refused permission to land at Karachi. After an abortive detour to an airfield 200km north, it flew back to Karachi, where there was a standoff between cockpit and control tower while the plane was in a holding pattern. Only when General Musharraf, who was in the cockpit throughout the drama, got through to a subordinate, was a rescue plan decided. The army stormed the control tower, and the 737 landed with seven minutes' fuel left.

General Musharraf has set up a "joint interrogation team" to investigate what his spokesman calls this "abortive conspiracy". The speculation is that this could be the prelude to a prosecution of Mr Sharif and perhaps others for attempted murder, which carries a maximum penalty of death by hanging.

In the first hours of Tuesday's coup General Musharraf demonstrated facts critical to the success of his bloodless takeover.

First, the solidity of the army behind him. When his intended replacement as army chief, General Khwajal Ziauddin, tried to rustle up support among corps commanders on Tuesday afternoon, he drew a blank. Like Mr Sharif, General Ziauddin is in detention.

Secondly, General Musharraf demonstrated that, although Mr Sharif swept back to power 31 months ago with a big mandate, he was now so unpopular that the army could take over without eliciting any serious protest.

Except for the absence of politicians, life is resoundingly normal. There is relief Mr Sharif was removed before, as an Islamabad citizen put it, he could "plunge the country into civil war by dividing the army."

For General Musharraf the easy part is over. Military rule is out of fashion. When Zia ul-Haq took over in 1977, the economy was sound, and the US backed him. Now, Pakistan's economy is in tailspin, and the whole world is appalled at what happened.

General Musharraf appears to understand that military rule pure and simple is not an option. The reason for the 48-hour delay between the coup and declaration of emergency on Thursday is believed to be because he was trying to persuade Mr Sharif to resign and to rescind his sacking of General Musharraf, so that parliamentary government of some form could resume. Mr Sharif refused to co-operate, and General Musharraf was left with no option, for legal reasons, but to impose an emergency.

But if Pakistan is not to be driven into default, with the ensuing chaos, he must act fast to install a caretaker government which will inspire some confidence abroad. How useful his commando experience will be in this task is uncertain./span>