Pakistan told to reform or face isolation

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Pakistan faced diplomatic isolation last night after it was in effect barred from the Commonwealth because of last week's military coup.

Pakistan faced diplomatic isolation last night after it was in effect barred from the Commonwealth because of last week's military coup.

But the British-led attempt to brand the country as a pariah nation was undermined by the easy ride that President Bill Clinton has given the military regime in Islamabad, and the absence of popular protests in Pakistan.

A committee of eight Commonwealth foreign ministers met in London for emergency talks yesterday and unanimously condemned the overthrow of the government of Nawaz Sharif. In a toughly worded joint statement they said the military coup was "a serious violation" of the Commonwealth's fundamental political principles. All 54 members of the Commonwealth are democracies.

The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group demanded that the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf produce a timetable for the restoration of a democratically elected government "without delay". Nigeria is the only other country to have been unceremoniously thrown out of the organisation. It was readmitted after elections last year.

The Commonwealth position stood in contrast to the ambivalence demonstrated by Mr Clinton yesterday. He expressed disappointment at the absence of a timetable for restoring democracy in General Musharraf's first public statements but he praised the general's "conciliatory tone" towards India. "A lot of what he said on the substance, including the conciliatory tone he took toward India, I thought was quite good," Mr Clinton said.

His words did not go unnoticed in Islamabad where General Musharraf shrugged off the threat of being excluded from the Commonwealth. "This is a unipolar world," he said. "What Washington says matters."

The US ambassador to Pakistan, William Milam, went even further than Mr Clinton, suggesting that the United States was ready to give General Musharraf time to make good on his promises. "We are confident General Musharraf is a moderate man who is acting out of patriotic motivation and was provoked into doing what he is doing," he said.

Yesterday's decision stops short of suspension from the Commonwealth: foreign ministers were not empowered to go that far. But the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, who initiated the step, insisted the effect was identical. He stressed that formal suspension is likely to be confirmed when Commonwealth heads of government meet in Durban next month.

The impact of the exclusion is largely symbolic: Pakistan will be barred from the Durban summit. But most Commonwealth financial aid to Pakistan has been frozen and other sanctions are likely to follow.

Mr Cook said Pakistan's military rulers should not underestimate the significance of yesterday's first step. "We have suspended the Pakistani government from everything this group is competent to suspend them from. There is nothing left to be suspended from," he said, adding that the decision was not intended to punish the Pakistani people.

A four-nation delegation led by Canada will travel to Pakistan within two weeks to assess developments. Canada's Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy, said he hoped Pakistan's military rulers could be pressured into at least a timetable for the restoration of democracy between now and the Durban meeting.