Pakistani leaders decide to quit: Sharif and Ishaq Khan resignations pave way for elections

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ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's President, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, and the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, resigned almost simultaneously yesterday, as part of a deal brokered by the army to end a bitter feud between them that had paralysed government. Mr Ishaq Khan also dissolved the National Assembly in a brief midnight ceremony on the advice of Mr Sharif, and announced the mid-term elections that the opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto, has been demanding for months.

The resignations ended a power struggle between the elderly president and his one- time protege that had stalled legislation for six months, sapped business confidence and forced the army to step in as honest broker. The army has ruled Pakistan for much of its 45-year history, often imposing martial law to resolve political crises.

'In order to uphold the national interest and in the firm belief that it shall help resolve the political crisis, I have decided to voluntarily resign my office,' the president said after swearing in the former World Bank vice-president, Moeen Qureshi, as caretaker prime minister. Mr Sharif had stepped down a few hours earlier.

Mr Ishaq Khan announced national elections for 6 October and the dissolution of the four provincial parliaments with polls due on 9 October. The Senate chairman, Wasim Sajjad, an Oxford-educated lawyer, took over as acting president. In a face-saving device after his abrupt exit from the political scene, the 78-year-old president would retain his privileges for the four months until his scheduled retirement at the end of a five-year term.

Mr Sharif, in a televised address to the nation, said he had been forced out by Ms Bhutto and 'drawing room' plotters who had conspired to undermine his ambitious economic reforms. 'I wanted to clear the debris of the past . . . but the enemies of progress did not like this,' Mr Sharif said. 'They tried to stop my hand by conspiracies.' He made a veiled reference to Mr Ishaq Khan, accusing 'some people of creating hurdles' that prevented him from governing: 'My heart is full of secrets. If I reveal all, a multitude of people will take to the streets in expression of anger.'

Mr Ishaq Khan sacked Mr Sharif in April only to see him reinstated by the Supreme Court 39 days later. Since then he had worked behind the scenes to destabilise his former protege. 'There was an artificial crisis and the source of that so-called crisis was a few individuals and a few drawing rooms,' Mr Sharif said. He accused the opposition, led by Ms Bhutto, of fomenting trouble with her threat to lead thousands of supporters in a 'long march' on the capital last Friday to try to topple him from power. 'The long march was a plan to create internal disruption,' he said.

The army stepped openly into the fray on Thursday when it asked Ms Bhutto to call off the march and forced the president and the prime minister into a series of stormy meetings to resolve their differences. Mr Sharif said he had offered reconciliation to the opposition, but that after their rebuffs he would fight them in the election. 'Now it will be open war with them on every front.'

Yesterday police said bomb blasts in the southern province of Sind killed two people and injured 11. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks at Shikarpur and Sanghar and in the provincial capital, Karachi.

Three bombs exploded in the northern Sind town of Shikarpur, killing one man and wounding eight people, while in Sanghar, in central Sind, a policeman was killed and two other people were injured, police said. Four blasts in Karachi injured a woman, destroyed a car and damaged two empty army sentry-boxes.

Officials said they suspected the Sind People's Youth Organisation, which is demanding amnesty for Murtaza Bhutto, the exiled brother of Benazir Bhutto.