Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has decided not to attend a multi-party meet called by ex-Premier Nawaz Sharif later this month in London to firm up a strategy to oppose President Pervez Musharraf and finalise an alliance for this year's general elections.
Bhutto's close associate and senior leader of her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Amin Fahim, today said she has decided not attend the two-day meet beginning from March 24.
The self-exiled Pakistani leader, who headed PPP, however agreed to depute a delegation of senior party leaders to attend the meeting, Fahim said.
Sharif and Bhutto have reached an understanding that the joint declaration of the multi-party meet would be drafted and finalised before the meeting, he said.
Sharif's brother Shahbaz, who lived with him in exile in London, said Bhutto's decision would not affect the alliance between the two leaders and their parties.
He said she could have some "genuine reasons" for not attending the meeting. "We should respect those factors too," he was quoted in the media here as saying from London.
Differences arose between the two leaders as Bhutto said an opposition parties' meeting would have more relevance after Musharraf announces plans to get re-elected by the existing Assemblies. Sharif, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League-N, however, called the meeting and invited Bhutto to take part in it.
Sharif reportedly apprehended that Bhutto is trying to strike an understanding with Musharraf through back-channel talks with the General's close associates to work out a rapprochment. Both Musharraf and PPP, however, had been denying reports of back-channel negotiations.
Sharif has also invited the leaders of the Islamist alliance Muthahida Majlis-e-Amal in the opposition parties' meet, which led to it being further embroiled in problems as PPP and MMA differed on the government legislation to amend the Hudood rape laws which put the onus of proof of assault on the victim rather than the rapist.
PPP backed the government legislation to try the rape accused under criminal justice system whereas MMA opposed it and staged agitation against it.
Bhutto apparently has strong reservations about sharing a platform with MMA leaders who were seen with greater degree of apprehension by the American and EU leaders.
She was also reportedly diffident about committing herself for a tie-up with MMA to finalise plans for any agitation against Musharraf as the Islamist alliance in 2004 broke off from opposition ranks and supported Musharraf's move to go for a Constitutional amendment legalising his rule.