Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was dramatically arrested and deported to Saudi Arabia on Monday within hours of returning to Pakistan from seven years in exile in a bid to kickstart a campaign against President Pervez Musharraf who ousted him in a 1999 coup.
"The deportation is in the prime interest of the nation," Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao said.
Airport sources in Jeddah confirmed that Sharif had arrived in Saudi Arabia and that security officials had whisked him away to an undisclosed destination.
Sharif's plane landed in Islamabad at about 8.45 in the morning. The same plane with Sharif on board took off for Saudi Arabia at 12.55 pm Reliable sources said that two Saudi Arabian nationals and some officials of a Pakistani intelligence agency are also travelling with Sharif.
Earlier, three unnamed Saudi officials and seven Pakistanis went into the plane after it landed and tried to convince Sharif to back to London but he refused. Instead, he insisted on clearing immigration and going out of the airport.
According to sources, he was initially given two options: to either go to jail or go back to London but he preferred to go jail.
After clearing immigration and after three hours of consultations in the VIP lounge of the airport, Sharif, his entourage and the media persons who had accompanied him from London were told that the former prime minister would be shifted to the nearby Murree hill station and would be kept in government custody.
Sharif agreed to this, the sources said.
Police then led Sharif away from the VIP lounge after serving a warrant on him. He next boarded a military helicopter that apparently flew toward Murree while the rest of Sharif's party left the airport.
However, after 20 minutes, the chopper returned to the Islamabad airport and Sharif was shifted to the aircraft that flew him to Saudi Arabia.
Sharif and his family members were sent into exile to Saudi Arabia in December 2000 under an agreement by which, the government claims, he was to stay away for 10 years. Sharif contests this, saying the agreement ran for only five years.
Pakistan's Supreme Court had last month permitted Sharif to return, saying the agreement was one-sided.
Soon after he was arrested in Islamabad, Sharif's faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) filed a contempt petition in the Supreme Court, which directed that the former prime minister be produced before it. By then, however, Sharif was already on the plane to Jeddah.
Authorities here imposed a major clampdown before he flew in from London, detaining all top leaders and activists of Sharif's PML, stopping his supporters from travelling to the capital and sealing off Islamabad airport.
All the roads leading to the airport were barricaded but some Sharif supporters managed to break through. They were arrested and baton charged by the police. Five people were hurt and the protesters later dispersed.
PML-N leader Khwaja Asif, who filed the petition in the Supreme Court, said: "We would fight the government in the courts and politically."
According to Asif, Musharraf wanted Sharif out of country to enable himself secure a second five-year term as president.
Musharraf, who is also army chief, is preparing to contest the presidential election to be conducted by the national and provincial assemblies some time between September 15 and October 15. General elections are also due around the end of the year.
"Its now almost martial law in Pakistan and Musharraf is the chief martial law administrator," Asif told IANS, adding: "We are going to take this issue up with the Supreme Court as well as with the people of Pakistan. We are exploring all legal and political avenues."
Earlier, the government said that Sharif had been arrested on corruption charges. Azhar Mahmood Qazi, a senior investigator of National Accountability Bureau (NAB) who served the warrant, said Sharif had been held on money-laundering and corruption charges related to a sugar mill that went bust several years ago.
Sharif was accused of laundering Rs 1.2 billion, Qazi said.