Sharif's triumphant return from exile adds to Musharraf's woes

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The woes of President Pervez Musharraf deepened last night after one of his most determined opponents returned to Pakistan from exile.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted by General Musharraf's military coup in 1999, flew into Lahore and was welcomed by thousands of supporters who broke through police barriers to greet him.

When Mr Sharif, the head of the Pakistan Muslim League, and his brother, Shahbaz, appeared, the crowds broke out into exultant cheers of "Nawaz Sharif Prime Minister" and "Musharraf is a dog". A sweaty and clearly emotional Mr Sharif then mounted a platform to denounce "dictatorship". He declared: "I have no lust for any post or power. I have come to serve the people and save Pakistan." He also called for the state of emergency declared on 3 November by President Musharraf to be lifted.

Mr Sharif's return will present considerable problems for Mr Musharraf ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for January and amid intense international pressure to lift the state of emergency.

It will also present a fresh challenge to another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, head of the largest opposition party, the Pakistan's People's Party.

Opinion polls suggest that support for Mr Sharif, who unlike Ms Bhutto has always refused to deal with President Musharraf, has grown in recent months. Any decision that he and Ms Bhutto make to work together in the coming days could prove to be crucial. A spokesman for Ms Bhutto last night welcomed Mr Sharif's return saying: "All the leaders of the political parties must be allowed to take part in the political process."

After he was ousted in 1999, Mr Sharif spent a year in jail before going into exile to avoid charges of treason and hijacking as part of a deal brokered by the Saudis.

Although Pakistan's Supreme Court had ruled he had an "inalienable" right to return, he was deported back to Saudi Arabia two months ago, just hours after landing at Islamabad.

Khwaja Asif, a senior member of Mr Sharif's party, said: "After seeing that Benazir Bhutto was allowed to return freely, the Saudis were applying pressure on General Musharraf to let Nawaz Sharif return."

On Saturday night, roads leading to the airport were blocked and a ban imposed on gatherings of more than five people.

Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for mr Sharif's party, claimed 4,000 party supporters had been arrested across Punjab province. But it was clear that most supporters had avoided arrest.

"This is I day I have been waiting eight years for," said Zaida Kazimi, a 50 year-old party activist from Rawalpindi. "I love Nawaz Sharif because he cares for the country and the poor. He built the motorway, and made us a nuclear power."

A new Sharif in town

* Nawaz Sharif, who will be 58 next month, served twice as prime minister, as has Benazir Bhutto, during the 1990s. The administrations of both leaders were dogged by graft accusations, and the country was virtually bankrupt after a decade of civilian rule was ended by Musharraf's military coup. After the coup, Sharif was convicted of corruption and given a life sentence for hijacking, relating to his refusal to allow landing rights to an airliner carrying Musharraf. But in terms of popularity, absence has made the public grow fonder, as his defiance of Musharraf won him fresh support. As the first industrialist to rule Pakistan, Sharif tried to reverse socialist policies and open up the economy.