Pakistani troops move in to close down parliament

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The Independent Online

PAKISTAN WAS still in a political vacuum last night after the army sealed the doors of the country's parliament building. Three days after the military coup, the ousted prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, remains under house arrest.

PAKISTAN WAS still in a political vacuum last night after the army sealed the doors of the country's parliament building. Three days after the military coup, the ousted prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, remains under house arrest.

But General Pervez Musharraf, the author of the coup, did not pass any legal order to prevent the house from convening.

The army appears unsure how to put a government in place, and some MPs, refusing to accept the legality of Nawaz Sharif's removal, are expected to turn up for today's session. Jaffer Iqbal, acting speaker of the parliament, said: "The constitution is there, the National Assembly is there. There can be no difficulty in holding a session of parliament."

Allowing a meeting of the National Assembly to proceed would be a risk for the army. It is possible that a majority of the MPs could vote to restore Nawaz Sharif to office.

"It's too early to say" said Fakhr Imam, a ruling party MP. "The situation is extremely fluid." Like many other Pakistani politicians he believes General Musharraf may be trying to install a government of technocrats.

It is not clear to what extent the ruling party is still backing Nawaz Sharif or whether it is prepared to abandon him. Some MPs have already broken ranks. Ejaz ul Haq, the deputy leader of the Muslim League and son of the former dictator General Zia, is critical of the former prime minister and seems to be positioning himself as a potential successor. "He [Sharif] was trying to create a rift within the army," he said. "The army had no option."

It seems that General Musharraf is also trying to install a civilian administration. His difficulty is that if he does not impose martial law he could face a treason charge in the high court. The army wants to be sure that it has legal cover before taking any final decision.

Meanwhile, the international community increased pressure on Pakistan's military leaders to install a civilian administration. In a sign that General Musharraf wants to reassure the West, a Pakistan embassy spokesman in Washington went on record insisting that martial law is not in place. "The constitution has not been scrapped," said Malik Zahoor Ahmad "The parliament and the president are still in place."

It also emerged in Washington that Nawaz Sharif was the intended but unnamed target of recent warnings by the Clinton administration. Senior US officials had issued warnings that he should not overstep constitutional lines.

While the administration was also signaling to the military leaders to stay in line, with hindsight it looks as if Washington may have inadvertently contributed to the prime minister's downfall.

More details have been emerging about the events of the coup. Nawaz Sharif had planned to remove General Musharraf as the general was returning from an official visit to Sri Lanka. The prime minister's wanted to divert the general's plane to a rural airport in Nawabshah and, when he landed, place him under arrest, giving his successor time to take control of the army. But the general insisted on landing in Karachi. He has said that the plane had very little fuel left.

Ejaz ul Haq agrees with the general's account: "He had only eight minutes of fuel left. Imagine if the plane had crashed and the army chief had died - what would have happened to the country?"

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