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Bhutto 'close to Musharraf deal'

Islamabad, August 30, 2007

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said she had almost sealed a power-sharing deal with President Pervez Musharraf under which he will quit as Pakistan's army chief, possibly before an election next month.

With his term coming to an end and his popularity plummeting, General Musharraf has turned to Bhutto for help to shore up his position and his aides are meeting the two-time premier, who is exiled in London.

Asked whether Musharraf had agreed to stand down as head of the army, Bhutto said: 'I can say that he wants to make the people of Pakistan happy on the uniform issue.

'It's not an obstacle any more. It's my assessment it will be before the presidential (election).'

Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, a close ally of Musharraf, told a news conference in Islamabad the matter was settled and the president would make an announcement soon.

Musharraf aims to get re-elected president for another five years between mid-September and mid-October, before his term as army chief expires at the end of the year. A parliamentary election is due to take place around the turn of the year.

Under any deal, Bhutto will expect to become prime minister for a third time, though it will require a constitutional amendment to remove a bar on serving more than two terms.

The Supreme Court last week added to the pressure on Musharraf to agree terms with Bhutto, by ruling that Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf overthrew in 1999, can return from exile in London.

Petitions challenging the legality of Musharraf's plan to get re-elected, or hold dual office, are piling up at the Supreme Court, which is regarded as hostile to Musharraf since he tried to oust the chief justice in March.

A pact with Bhutto could see Musharraf to safety, but he will have to pay Bhutto's price.

'We're looking at how we can defuse the political situation so there is a peaceful transition. We would like to see the moderate forces strengthened. We've been discussing a constitutional package,' she said.

Western governments are closely following the political turbulence in Pakistan, whose support is critical to fighting Al Qaeda and crushing a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

Sharif, who has allied himself with conservative religious parties, was expected to announce the date of his return shortly.

'It will definitely be before September 15,' his brother and fellow exile Shahbaz Sharif, told a news conference in London.

Speculation is rife that Bhutto will come back before Sharif to spike the public sympathy he gained through his refusal to negotiate with a military president.

Bhutto told Aaj, a private Pakistani television channel she planned to come back by mid-September.

Negotiations with Musharraf's aides are now focusing on the balance of power between parliament and the president.

'It's important to follow the parliamentary tradition where members of parliament can, through a vote of no confidence, remove the prime minister,' Bhutto said.

Her last government ended in 1996 when she was dismissed by a civilian president. Hounded by corruption charges, Bhutto went into self-exile in 1998.

She said it had been agreed that parliamentarians during the period of civilian rule between 1988 and 1989 would be granted immunity from further prosecution in cases where charges were still unproven.

Bhutto is due to meet her party leaders in London and wants terms finalised by then.Reuters




Tags: Pakistan | Pervez Musharraf | Benazir Bhutto | Nawaz Sharif |

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