ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani authorities tightened security at Islamabad’s airport and have detained more than 2,000 supporters of exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, his party said on Sunday, the eve of his planned return.
Sharif, ousted by army chief General Pervez Musharraf in 1999, says he is determined to fly home from London on Monday to try to end President Musharraf’s rule despite an appeal from a Saudi official for him to stay away for the sake of stability.
“I am, God willing, coming on the 10th of September and please don’t try to stop me,” he told reporters in London at a weekend press conference.
He said Musharraf thought might was right and believed “in the law of the jungle. One cannot expect anything else from him. So I am not scared, let me tell you.”
The return of Sharif is a serious challenge for Musharraf, who has lost much support since trying to dismiss the country’s top judge in March.
It comes as Musharraf is preparing to try to secure another term in a presidential election by the national and provincial assemblies some time between September 15 and October 15.
A general election is due around the end of the year.
Sharif’s spokesman, Ahsan Iqbal, said authorities had detained more than 2,000 activists from Sharif’s party in Punjab province, Sharif’s political power base.
“The way the government has acted has proven our point that there is no democracy under Musharraf, there is dictatorship in the country,” Iqbal said. “Politically, they are very sacred of a big show of popularity upon his arrival.”
A provincial police official said 250 “trouble makers” had been picked up.
Sharif is due to leave London on Sunday and arrive in Islamabad on a scheduled Gulf Air flight from Muscat at 11.45 a.m. (2:45 a.m. EDT) on Monday, a spokesman in London said.
A security high alert has been declared at Islamabad airport which will be largely sealed off, a security official said.
“Security is at high alert and tomorrow visitors won’t be allowed in, only people with confirmed tickets,” the official said.
Musharraf sent Sharif to Saudi Arabia in 2000 as part of what the government says was an agreement that Sharif would stay in exile for 10 years. In return, he avoided a life sentence on hijacking and corruption charges.
Pakistan says the Saudi royal family and assassinated Lebanese leader Rafik al-Hariri guaranteed the deal. Sharif said on Saturday he understood the agreement was for five years exile.
The Supreme Court last month said Sharif had the right to return and the government should not try to stop him.
Saudi intelligence chief Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz and al-Hariri’s son, Saad, met Musharraf in Islamabad on Saturday.
“We are hoping, we are really hoping, sincerely hoping, His Excellency Nawaz Sharif honors this agreement,” Muqrin told reporters. He cited concern about Pakistani stability.
The government has not said what it will when Sharif and his politician brother, Shahbaz, land.
“We hope that nothing happens because we’re just planning a very peaceful homecoming for him. But if they try to obstruct people going to the airport there may be tension,” Iqbal said.
The brothers could be arrested — both face various charges — or they could be put on an aircraft back out of the country, as Shahbaz was when he tried to come home in 2004.
Sharif plans to lead a procession from Islamabad 300 km (200 miles) to the city of Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, his hometown and the country’s political nerve centre.
Musharraf’s ruling party, cobbled together from the remnants of Sharif’s party, said on Saturday the brothers should be allowed to return freely and compete in elections.