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Musharraf to face questions in Europe

On a four-country trip to Europe, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf is expected to face tough questions over his rule while shoring up international support.

world Updated: Jan 18, 2008 18:32 IST

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf heads off on a four-country trip to Europe this weekend where he is expected to face tough questions over his rule while shoring up international support.

Musharraf, whose popularity at home has slumped over recent months, will be leaving a country racked by militant attacks and on edge over prospects for a fair general election on Feb18 that is meant to complete a transition to civilian rule.

Former foreign secretary Tanvir Ahmed Khan expected Musharraf to seek to impress on Europeans that Pakistan's best hope of stability rested with him retaining power.

"He's trying to establish his credentials with the key Western powers with the same old message: that he's indispensable, they don't have a better friend than him, without him the war on terror would unravel and Pakistan's economic progress would collapse," Khan said.

A surge of attacks by Al- Qaeda-linked militants based on the Afghan border has raised concern about prospects for the country and its efforts to support NATO and US forces struggling to subdue Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

Fears for nuclear-armed Pakistan's stability were aggravated sharply by the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in a bomb and gun attack on Dec 27.

Musharraf is due to hold talks with European Union and Belgian leaders in Brussels, meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris and then attend the World Economic Forum in Switzerland before talks in London with Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Khan said European leaders would be mindful of criticism of Musharraf, a former army chief who seized power in a 1999 coup, in the media and among think-tanks.

The influential Brussels-based International Crisis Group think-tank, which has long opposed Musharraf's rule, said this month he should step down for the sake of Pakistan's stability.

"No West European government can really ignore the groundswell of public and media opinion," Khan said, anticipating that Musharraf will get the backing he seeks, while also being given a message to do more to promote democracy and human rights.

No Alternative

Najmuddin Shaikh, another former foreign secretary and ambassador to several countries including the United States and Germany, also said Musharraf would face questions about the elections which opposition parties say they fear will be rigged.

"He'll probably hold out assurances that they will be free, fair and transparent," Sheikh said.

Musharraf can also expect tough questions over restrictions on the media, the detention of judges and opposition lawyers and the situation along the Afghan border where Pakistani troops have faced setbacks in recent days.

But the Europeans would remain supportive, while harbouring doubts about the prospects for stability, he said.

"I would think that right now they don't really see an alternative," Shaikh said.

There has been speculation in the Pakistani press that while in London, Musharraf might meet Shahbaz Sharif, the brother of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf ousted in 1999.

The brothers head one of the main opposition parties. The Nawaz League, as its known, is expected to do well in the polls, while the party that backs Musharraf is expected to fare poorly unless there's heavy rigging.

Musharraf will need support in the new parliament and one of his trusted friends recently met Shahbaz Sharif in London for talks on what Sharif described to the News newspaper as "important political matters".

While Shahbaz told the paper there was no chance of him meeting Musharraf that is unlikely to dampen speculation that Musharraf is putting out feelers on post-election cooperation.