ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, (AP) – Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was deported to Saudi Arabia Monday, hours after he had landed in Pakistan following seven years in exile hoping to campaign against the country’s U.S.-allied military ruler, officials said.
About four hours after he arrived on a flight from London, Sharif was taken into custody and charged with corruption, but then quickly spirited to another plane and flown out of Pakistan toward Jiddah, a close aide to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said.
An intelligence official confirmed the information. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to media. There was no immediate formal announcement from the government.
Sharif’s deportation apparently sidelines a powerful political enemy of the general, but it is likely to deepen Musharraf’s growing unpopularity and reinforce public perceptions that he is an authoritarian ruler ahead of presidential and legislative elections.
The deportation came despite a landmark Supreme Court ruling last month that the two-time former premier, whose elected government was ousted by Musharraf in a 1999 coup, had the right to return to Pakistan and that authorities should not obstruct him.
Sharif’s brother Shahbaz said their party would submit a petition with the court to challenge the deportation.
“This will be counted as the blackest day in Pakistan’s history,” he said on Geo TV. “I do not have words to describe my grief. This is a tragedy for Pakistan that a dictator is disregarding the people.”
Musharraf’s grip on power has faltered after a failed attempt to oust the country’s top judge ignited mass protests, but he is still plans to seek a new five-year term in office by mid-October.
His government is also struggling to combat surging Islamic extremism that has spread from the Afghan border where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding.
The deportation is likely to stoke confrontation with opposition activists, who battled police Monday morning on roads leading to Islamabad airport that authorities had blockaded with trucks, tractors and barbed wire.
Police fired tear gas and supporters threw rocks in at least two locations near Islamabad and also a bridge on main highway leading to the capital from Pakistan’s northwest frontier. Several people were injured at each clash, Associated Press reporters said.
“We wanted to get to the airport to welcome the person who has challenged the dictator,” said Asif Ali, one of the Sharif supporters near Islamabad. “We were tear-gassed and baton-charged.”
Former President Rafiq Tarar, a Sharif loyalist, said he was roughed up in one confrontation. He declared the government was “anti-Pakistan.” Witnesses said Tarar was later arrested.
At least four other senior opposition leaders were also put under house arrest, officials said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Iqbal Cheema said they were arrested “to ensure the maintenance of public order,” under a regulation that allows authorities to detain suspects for up to three months without charge.
Sharif was sent into exile in Saudi Arabia seven years ago after he was convicted of terrorism and hijacking charges in Pakistan following the coup. Under a deal with Musharraf, Sharif allegedly promised to stay away for 10 years.
Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud said Saturday in Islamabad that Sharif should respect the agreement and that Saudi Arabia was ready to take him back.
After arriving by a Pakistan International Airlines flight from London, it had initially appeared Sharif was being arrested but would be allowed to stay in the country.
Sharif was surrounded by black-uniformed commandos inside the plane then shifted to the airport’s VIP lounge, where a senior investigator from Pakistan’s anti-corruption body served an arrest warrant.
The investigator, Azhar Mahmood Qazi, said Sharif was being arrested on money-laundering and corruption charges stemming from a sugar mill business several years ago. Sharif was accused of laundering $21.2 million, he said.
Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, president of Pakistan’s ruling party, said Sharif had been given a choice of going into exile again or be arrested. He said Sharif had chosen detention.
But it soon emerged soon after Sharif was being flown out of the country to Saudi Arabia.
He had planned to travel in a grand motorcade to his home and political base in Lahore, about 180 miles to the south of Islamabad, to kickstart his campaign against Musharraf.
Sharif’s return was widely seen as a challenge to Musharraf’s efforts to reach a possible power-sharing deal with another exiled former premier Benazir Bhutto that would allow him to extend his rule.
But Bhutto herself now will likely face growing opposition within her own party to the idea of teaming up with the military leader. Like Sharif, she wants to contest general elections due by mid-January 2008.
Bhutto says she also plans to return to Pakistan, regardless of the outcome of the talks with Musharraf. She is due to announce her return date on Sept. 14.