Police detained supporters of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and sealed the airport ahead of his return from exile on Sunday, a reminder that President Gen Pervez Musharraf’s Emergency rule remains in effect.
Thousands of police were deployed at the airport, some of them guarding metal and barbed-wire barriers on approach roads and sidewalks. Passengers with tickets were allowed through. On the streets of the city, several welcome posters and banners of Sharif were on display, but there was no sign of supporters gathering to greet him.
Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesperson for Sharif’s party, said some 1,800 activists were detained in a crackdown since late Saturday in Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital.
However, federal Information Minister Nisar Memon said he was exaggerating.“There are no arrests as such,” Memon said. “About 100 people have been confined so that they do not create any issues. We don’t want the same mess as there was in Karachi.”
He was referring to the huge rally that greeted another former premier, Benazir Bhutto, when she was allowed to return to Pakistan last month. Her homecoming procession was torn by a suicide bombing that killed about 150 people.
Both Bhutto and Sharif are seeking to return to power after January 8 parliamentary elections. But the ballot, which the west hopes will produce a moderate government able to stand up to Islamic extremism, has been thrown into confusion by Musharraf’s November 3 seizure of Emergency powers.
Memon said leaders of Sharif’s party would be allowed to greet him at Lahore’s Allama Iqbal International Airport and drive with him into the city.
But Sharif’s entourage was suspicious. “The police action and massive deployment shows something fishy is going on. They’ve blocked every vehicle carrying supporters of (Sharif’s party),” said Sayed Hafeezuddin, a lawyer for the exiled leader.
Sharif’s arrival comes a day after suicide attacks killed up to 35 people in Rawalpindi.