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Sharif dodges his critics

UNLIKE PAKISTAN'S defeated cricketers, who faced salty abuse back home from the World Cup, the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, returned to Lahore on Thursday amid a deathly hush. This was achieved by an airport closed for hours before his arrival, press and government officials banned from the VIP lounge, and the area flooded with police.

If the public had had their way, they might have given Mr Sharif an even rougher ride. In Washington, last week, he signed an agreement with the United States to take "concrete steps" for the "restoration of the Line of Control" - in other words, the withdrawal of Pakistani or Pakistan- sponsored troops from the Indian territory in Kashmir.

Mr Sharif came back with a peace deal, but then went to ground. Government- controlled Pakistan TV, which usually tracks him like a devoted dog, ignored his return and there were no pictures in the papers. As for his address to the nation on the agreement - there were hints it would be broadcast on Thursday, then the National Assembly on Friday, or the nation on Saturday, or the assembly on Monday. So far he has been silent.

The diffidence is understandable. The agreement was greeted in Pakistan by disgust and disbelief, the most vociferous protesters being the Islamic fundamentalists. At a demonstration in Lahore on Friday, Mr Sharif was burned in effigy, and Munawar Hasan, of the extremist Jamaat-i-Islami, called Mr Sharif "a traitor".

But moderate Pakistanis, seeing hundreds killed in Kashmir, share the outrage. India has made no concessions for the withdrawal, the US seems not to want to intervene, and Pakistan is forced to acknowledge the border be respected. India is basking in incipient triumph, its Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, declaring: "The whole thing will soon end in victory."