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Last Updated: Monday, 10 September 2007, 14:33 GMT 15:33 UK
Eyewitnesses: Nawaz Sharif's short return

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has made a dramatic, but short-lived, return to Pakistan as he attempts to challenge the rule of President Pervez Musharraf, the man who ousted him in a military coup in 1999. BBC correspondents describe events.

OWEN BENNETT JONES - travelling with Nawaz Sharif

Mr Sharif's supporters confront police in Islamabad

Nawaz Sharif was arrested shortly after his arrival in Islamabad after seven years in exile. Police charged him with money laundering before deporting him.

Mr Sharif travelled back home on a direct flight from the UK, on board a plane of the state carrier, Pakistan International Airlines.

His departure from London's Heathrow airport on Sunday evening was something of a cloak-and-dagger affair.

He had been hoping to land in triumph and then make a colourful procession to the city of Lahore, to be witnessed by thousands of adoring supporters.

But there was much speculation - that turned out to be well-founded - that he would be arrested as soon as he landed.
Mr Sharif refusing to leave his plane
Mr Sharif at first refused to get off the plane

His officials tried to outwit the Pakistani authorities by announcing that he would be on a Gulf Air flight via Muscat. But in the end all the manoeuvring made little difference.

There were chaotic scenes at Heathrow when Mr Sharif arrived, surrounded by a large group of journalists.

He was with his brother, Shahbaz, also a leading politician, who had said he was also returning to the motherland. But at the last minute Shahbaz said he would not be flying.

"My brother has stopped me going," Shahbaz said. "I am very sad and disappointed."

He might also have been somewhat relieved.

The military had issued clear warnings that Shahbaz, who faces murder charges relating to his time as chief minister of Punjab province, would also have been arrested had he returned.

'Very excited'

On board the plane Nawaz Sharif was relaxed, even sleeping for much of the flight despite being surrounded by journalists who wanted to interview him.

"I am very excited," he said in one of his moments of wakefulness. "For over seven years I haven't seen my country. It's a great feeling to be going back."

As he flew back to Pakistan his fate was still far from clear "I might be arrested," he said, "but if I am it will be a mistake by Musharraf."

Mr Sharif may have been calculating that he can now play the role of a political martyr, putting himself in danger for the sake of democracy.

But the strategy depends on his party machine being able to organise big street protests calling for his return to politics.

Mr Sharif on the tarmac at Islamabad airport
Mr Sharif set foot on Pakistani soil only briefly
Once the plane had touched down in Islamabad it was surrounded by armed security personnel.

There was a stand-off as Mr Sharif refused to disembark until the police were moved back.

"I should be able to go through the airport like anyone else," he said. "There is no need for all this security." He was sitting in the middle of the plane surrounded by party workers vowing to protect him.

Eventually he did agree to disembark and was moved to Islamabad airport's VIP lounge.

And it was there the authorities made their move, charging him with money laundering.

Tempers frayed and party activists started chanted anti-Musharraf slogans. A team of Punjab's elite police force moved in to bustle Mr Sharif back to the tarmac.

A bus sped him to a waiting helicopter and local officials said he was being taken to a prison although they would not give the location.

As it turned out, his destination was to be another plane that would return him to exile in Saudi Arabia.

SYED SHOAIB HASAN - Islamabad

Ayesha Murtaza, an activist for the Muslim League party (PML-N), joins half a dozen other activists, mostly from the Punjab, in a quiet vigil outside Islamabad airport.

PML-N activists celebrate Nawaz Sharif's arrival during a demonstration near the Islamabad airport
PML-N activists gathered to welcome Mr Sharif outside Islamabad airport

"I will lie down in front of the vehicle they take him away in if they arrest him," she says.

Ms Murtaza, an elderly woman, had crossed several checkpoints to welcome Mr Sharif.

Most PML-N leaders and activists could not make it after being arrested during a continuing government crackdown on Mr Sharif's party.

Orders were issued to police officials throughout Mr Sharif's home province of the Punjab to arrest any PML-N cadres.

Hundreds of activists and leaders are still being held behind bars.

Sense of fear

Observers say this highlights the sense of fear pervading President Musharraf's regime.

They believe the excessively harsh crackdown reflects the government's desperation to keep the President's nemesis away at all costs.

This was evident on the roads of Islamabad and Rawalpindi which lacked the atmosphere of a political homecoming.

Senior PML-N leaders, including party chairman Raja Zafar-ul-Haq and information secretary Ahsan Iqbal, were arrested while leading a procession through a checkpoint.

At least five checkpoints were set up on the way from Islamabad to the airport.

Traffic was allowed to move down one side of the road, under close surveillance by security guards.

The largest checkpoint was at the Kroll intersection - the point where the traffic from Lahore and Islamabad meets and turns towards Rawalpindi.

It is also where PML-N processions were supposed to meet and march towards the airport.

The expected crowds failed to show, ostensibly because of the massive security crackdown.

Party faithful

A few intrepid souls did try and sneak their way through the security guards.

While some managed to get through, most were caught and beaten by the police.

"We were just making our way past the last checkpoint, when the police grabbed us", says Mohammad Arshad, a PML-N activist from Daska.

Daska is a small town in Punjab and Mr Arshad came to Rawalpindi as part of a procession led by their local parliamentarian, Mr Wyne.

Supporters of Nawaz Sharif are arrested by police during clashes in Islamabad (10.09)
Several people are thought to have been injured in the clashes
"After Mr Wyne was arrested, I raised slogans in support of Mian sahib (Nawaz Sharif)", Arshad said.

"Around 12 policemen grabbed me and beat me with batons and fists".

Mr Arshad escaped, with swollen red welts across his back.

But he remains defiant and says he will continue to fight for Mr Sharif.

"I am willing to die for him and for the party", he said.

His colleagues, who were with Mr Arshad during his beating added "When Mian Sahib returns to lead us, we will overthrow the tyrant."

Mounting tension

As Mr Sharif finally landed in Pakistan, tension among the few remaining activists mounted.

Fear turned to anger when a PML-N activist, who had flown in with Mr Sharif, managed to get out and tell his news.

"Mian Sahib has been arrested by police and plainclothes men on baseless charges of money laundering", he told the press outside the heavily guarded airport gate.

At that point half a dozen angry activists approached the security personnel outside the gates, chanting anti-Musharraf slogans.

But the security personnel stood silently by, as 'negotiations' inside the airport continued.

Finally at 1300 Pakistan time, four hours after Mr Sharif's plane landed, a convoy of vehicles moved out of the gates.

Closely followed by security personnel in vans and armoured personnel carriers, they moved off towards the nearby Chaklala air force base.

Some PML-N activists tried to stop the convoy, but to no avail. They were pushed aside by security personnel and the vehicles rapidly sped away.

But while they were unable to prevent their leader being deported, the PML-N activists seemed to reflect the rising anti-Musharraf feeling in the country.

"This government cannot abide by the rule of law... it has lost all moral right to rule", an emotional PML-N activist said outside the airport.

A hundred metres away a group of his enraged comrades continue to chant the now ubiquitous opposition call.

"Go, Musharraf, go. Go, Musharraf, go."


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