airport security 298.88.
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Pakistan stepped up security at all of its major airports Sunday after receiving reports about possible terror attacks, a day before the nation's exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was to return home, officials said.
Sharif plans to fly from London to Islamabad on Monday and travel by motorcade to his home to campaign against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who ousted his elected government in a 1999 coup.
"I will go back to Pakistan on Sept. 10 with my brother because my country needs me," he said Saturday at a news conference in London, after a Saudi envoy urged him to respect a 2000 agreement under which he promised to stay away for 10 years.
As Sharif spurned the Saudi pressure and vowed to return home, authorities in Pakistan quickly put all of their major airports on high alert to avoid possible attacks, said two senior intelligence officials.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue, did not explain whether they had received any specific terror report, although they said they would not allow any public gathering near the airports.
The new security measures came days after the U.S. Embassy warned its citizens to avoid popular markets and crowded areas, saying it had received "non-specific information regarding terrorist attacks, possibly suicide attacks, against U.S. interests or places frequented by Westerners in the major cities in Pakistan."
Analysts say Sharif's return could upset talks on a power-sharing pact between his archrivals Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, another exiled former premier plotting a political comeback.
The government has suggested that Sharif could be quickly arrested. Media reports suggest a "VIP cell" at a 16th-century fortress is being readied.
But Sharif says he would rather be a political prisoner than avoid a "decisive battle with dictatorship."
Sharif on Saturday acknowledged that Lebanese lawmaker Saad Hariri, who visited him in a Pakistani jail after his conviction in 2000 on terrorism and hijacking charges, had secured his release with an understanding that he would not return for a decade.
But Sharif said that Hariri later told him the period of exile was only five years, though he acknowledged that was not mentioned in the document he signed. Sharif denied breaking his word by deciding to return to Pakistan now.
"Why did Saad Hariri forget to mention at his press conference in Pakistan that he had not been able to honor his assurance to me?" he asked.
Sharif spoke hours after Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah's envoy Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Hariri told a news conference in Pakistan that Sharif should honor his word by not returning home. They spoke after meeting with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
"We are sincerely hoping that his excellency Nawaz Sharif honors that agreement," the Saudi envoy said, adding King Abdullah was concerned about the "unity, stability and prosperity" of Pakistan.
Hariri, who helped broker the 2000 exile deal and recently met with Sharif, also said Sharif's previous commitment to stay in exile should be binding.
Sharif, who was twice elected premier, was toppled in Musharraf's 1999 bloodless coup. He was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment before being released into exile in Saudi Arabia.
"I am going to Pakistan with a message of peace, love, tranquility and national reconciliation," he said. "I am going to lead the people of Pakistan against the dictatorship, and the dictator sitting in Islamabad should give up his futile efforts to stop me."
The government has reopened corruption cases against Sharif and his family. A court in the eastern city of Lahore issued an arrest warrant Friday for his younger brother in connection with a murder case.
The brother, Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab province before the 1999 coup, is also expected to return from exile Monday. He has denied the allegation.
Musharraf, an important ally in the U.S. war against terrorism, has seen his popularity shrink since his failed attempt to fire the country's top judge earlier this year.
Musharraf has denounced both Sharif and Bhutto as corrupt and incompetent and blamed them for Pakistan's near-bankruptcy in the 1990s.
However, the Supreme Court ruled last month the Sharifs were free to enter Pakistan - and warned that their return should not be obstructed.
While the government has accepted the ruling, authorities appear determined to disrupt the opposition's plans for a rousing welcome.
Police officials said they have rounded up activists from Sharif's Muslim League-N to maintain order. The party says more than 1,500 have been arrested.
Musharraf is expected to seek re-election by lawmakers by mid-October, but has yet to make a commitment to resign as army chief if he continues as president. Many experts say that staying in uniform beyond 2007 would violate the constitution.