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Wednesday, 20 October, 1999, 11:17 GMT
A sacking and a coup
man in uniform General Pervez Musharraf took command of the coup and Nawaz Sharif's government was toppled within a matter of hours

By Owen Bennett-Jones in Islamabad

I was standing outside the television headquarters when the troops arrived. At first the soldiers asked to be allowed in, but officials on the other side of a high iron gate had their orders.

"No," they said, "you can't come in." The troops reported back to their headquarters on the radio - "They won't let us in."

The response crackled back immediately - "Take control, take control." Seconds later the soldiers were clambering over the gate.

Pakistan in crisis
The prime minister's elite force was inside to protect the building on behalf of the civilian government. But it seemed to acknowledge that it was out gunned.

The elite force saw the army coming and the men simply sat down and put their weapons on the ground in front of them. The army had scored its first victory and the coup was underway.

Confrontation

men scaling gate at night The army's first victory
It all began about a couple of hours earlier when Pakistan television broadcast a news flash, saying that the army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, had been sacked.

Within minutes the army had dispatched a major to the TV building with a simple order:

"Stop the broadcast going out again."

And the major did have a go. He marched into the newsroom and told them not to transmit the news item. Recognising a superior force when it saw one, the newsroom complied.

But within minutes the government got wind of what was going on and it dispatched its own man to the newsroom. This one was a brigadier from Nawaz Sharif's elite force.

"Play the message," he ordered, "broadcast it."

"Don't," the major insisted, "pull it."

Deadlock. The brigadier upped the ante. He took out his pistol from its holster and repeated his demand - "play it." The major responded in kind. He pulled out his pistol - "Don't play it."

We now have two military officers, pacing the corridors of Pakistan television, pointing guns at each other. The stakes were high. Was the general sacked or not? Would the government's will be done?

The army takes control

At the time the prime minister's man, the brigadier, prevailed. The news of the sacking was played on a couple of extra occasions, but the army had the final say.

Once the major had told his superiors about his failure to get the news blocked, the army dispatched the troops who I witnessed taking the building. Within 20 minutes of them clambering over that gate, PTV was off air.

The signal did come back a few hours later, but by that time the news it was broadcasting was very different. This time it said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been dismissed. The chief of army staff, it said, will make a statement shortly.

But if I thought I was seeing high drama, it was nothing compared to what was happening in the skies above the city of Karachi. Whilst his troops were securing the television station, the chief of army staff, General Pervez Musharraf, was returning from an official trip to Sri Lanka.

The prime minister had chosen this moment to sack the general and it was done with care - since the general was airborne, he wouldn't be able to do much about it.

The government's plan went like this - they'd get the general's plane diverted from its intended destination of Karachi to Nawab Shah, a small rural airport in Sind. The general would then be taken into custody to make sure he couldn't organise any resistance to his sacking.

But the plan went wrong.

As the general's plane approached Nawab Shah, the crew noticed that there were a lot of vehicles near the runway. That was unusual. The airport was so small that it was normally absolutely empty.

Blocked runway

soldiers below announcement board The runway was cleared
They told the army chief and, perhaps realising what was up, he ordered the plane to return to Karachi. But when it reached Karachi there was another problem - the runway had been blocked by civilian aviation vehicles and the control tower was refusing the plane permission to land.

General Musharraf took over on the radio. "This is the army chief," he shouted, "let me land." "No," the reply came back, "you cannot land. You can land at a foreign airport, but not in Pakistan. You cannot land here."

This was a remarkable statement for a number of reasons. It wasn't just a question of refusing General Musharraf permission to land. He was on a commercial flight. There were 268 other passengers on board and it was fast running out of fuel.

The general tried to argue, but to no avail. Eventually he managed to make radio contact with his corps commander in Karachi.

Troops were rushed to the airport, they took over the control tower, cleared the runway and the plane managed to land. It had just six or seven minutes worth of fuel left on board. As soon as the general got off the plane, he took command of the coup.

The government of Nawaz Sharif was toppled within a matter of hours and Pakistan's latest period of military rule had begun.

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See also:
13 Oct 99 |  South Asia
Pakistan coup to 'aid stability'
11 Nov 99 |  South Asia
Pakistan's coup: The 17-hour victory

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