Musharraf to become civilian ruler

Musharraf to become civilian ruler

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has begun a series of farewell visits to the country’s military establishment officials say.

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The military ruler, who seized power in a coup in 1999, is to take an oath as a civilian president on Thursday, a day after hanging up his uniform.

His first stop today was at the Joint Staffs headquarters, combining the top commands of the army, navy and air forces, where he was to take the salute at a farewell parade, a defence ministry official says.

He later went to visit the separate headquarters of the air force and navy, and adressed the troops.

The armed forces' command is based in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, where a double suicide bombing on Saturday targeting security forces killed at least 18 people, according to an official toll.

The United States has welcomed the President's decision, saying the government had taken “some encouraging steps”, but again urged Mr Musharraf to lift a state of emergency that has outraged the international community.

Boycott threatened

The plan is however unlikely to placate opposition leaders at home who are threatening to boycott general elections on January 8.

“President Musharraf will take the oath as a civilian president on the 29th and he will pay farewell visits to various military headquarters on the 27th and 28th,” spokesman Rashid Qureshi told news agency AFP on Monday.

Last week a purged Supreme Court rubber-stamped President Musharraf's victory in an October presidential election, swatting away legal challenges arguing that as a serving officer, he was ineligible to stand.

Top military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said Mr Musharraf would officially step down as army chief on Wednesday.

Contenders line up

Confirmation of the timetable came as former premier Nawaz Sharif, the man whom Mr Musharraf ousted eight years ago, applied to stand in the January vote.

A day after returning from exile to a hero's welcome, Mr Sharif was showered with rose petals as he filed his nomination papers in a courthouse in the eastern city of Lahore, his political fiefdom.

But he said the elections would only be acceptable if Mr Musharraf lifted the state of emergency and withdrew an order suspending the constitution.

“Martial law and dictatorship are not in the country's interest,” Mr Sharif told reporters.

“My party will not become part of any coalition government under President Musharraf in future,” he added. “We believe that any government serving under Musharraf will be illegal and undemocratic.”

He said he was in favour of boycotting the elections but did not rule out his participation pending talks with other parties.

Benazir Bhutto, another ex-prime minister, also filed her papers on Monday.

Both opposition leaders say they had to do so ahead of a midnight deadline even if they later decide to pull out.

“We are concerned that elections will be rigged but we don't want to leave the field empty,” Ms Bhutto said at her family's ancestral home in Larkana in rural southern Pakistan.

She reached out to Mr Sharif, saying she was ready to form an alliance “with all moderate political parties.”

Mr Sharif's return, which came a month after Ms Bhutto also ended her exile, ratchets up the pressure on President Musharraf. Each served twice as premier between 1988 and 1999.

US welcomes move

The United States described Musharraf's vow to shed his uniform and the scheduling of elections as “encouraging steps” but State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said more needed to be done.

“We continue to urge and counsel the state of emergency be lifted prior to the election so you could have elections in which the Pakistani people have confidence,” Mr McCormack told reporters.

If Mr Sharif were to form a coalition with Ms Bhutto he could cause major problems for President Musharraf and secure defections from the president's ruling party.

Analysts have questioned whether a Sharif-Bhutto alliance will stand the test of time.

Mr Sharif is a religious conservative while the secular Ms Bhutto is seen by the United States — keen to preserve Pakistan's role in the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban — as pro-Western.

Pakistani troops backed by gunship helicopters on Monday intensified a campaign against pro-Taliban militants who have seized much of the northwestern Swat valley, killing 20 militants including three commanders, officials said.

Attorney general Malik Muhammad Qayyum said earlier that Mr Sharif may be ineligible because he was sentenced to life in jail on corruption and hijacking charges before he was banished in 2000.