Nawaz Sharif plans 2nd return to Pak

( AP ) - Pakistan's government on Friday denounced an international organization's suspension of its membership, while an opposition party said its exiled leader was taking key steps to return to the emergency-ruled country.

The government condemned the banishment from the Commonwealth as "unreasonable and unjustified" and said the 53-nation body, composed mainly of Britain and its former colonies, had failed to appreciate Pakistan's "serious internal crisis" in demanding that it immediately restore democracy.

Meanwhile, the return of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from Saudi Arabia could bolster opponents of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf ahead of Jan. 8 parliamentary elections.

Sharif's plan was announced Thursday hours after the Supreme Court, packed with pliant judges, swept away the last legal obstacles to Musharraf's new five-year term as president.

The U.S.-allied leader was expected to give up his dual, and powerful, post as army chief within days in hopes of cooling domestic and foreign criticism over his suspension of the constitution and assumption of emergency powers three weeks ago.

But discontent has intensified this year over Musharraf's rule, which began with a coup that ousted Sharif as prime minister in 1999. Sharif is now a vehement critic of the general and leader of one of the two main opposition parties.

Presidential spokesman Rashid Qureshi declined to say what Musharraf would do if Sharif tried to enter Pakistan. Sharif was swiftly deported to Saudi Arabia when he tried to return in September.

That expulsion was supported by Saudi Arabia's government, but Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, president of Musharraf's ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party, said Sharif now had "some deal" with Saudi authorities.

"We are ready to face him and he has to face the people" in the parliamentary elections, Hussain said on Dawn News television.

Musharraf has insisted that Sharif stay out of Pakistan until after the elections, which the West hopes will produce a moderate government able to turn the tide against Islamic militants who have shown increased strength in the tribal region along the border with Afghanistan.

Speculation that Saudi Arabia was willing to let Sharif go home had been rife since Musharraf made a surprise trip to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, for talks with King Abdullah on Tuesday.

Sharif was to meet the king on Friday, his party said.

Sharif's party said he wanted to come back to Pakistan within days. He has been calling for parties to boycott the vote, but other rival opposition groups haven't taken up the idea.

The re-emergence of a heavyweight rival creates a new headache for Musharraf as he tries to defend the emergency against criticism, including from the United States, a key provider of aid.

Musharraf imposed it just before the previous Supreme Court was to rule on complaints that the constitution bars the army chief from running for elected office.

Authorities blocked independent TV news and arrested thousands of lawyers, opposition party supporters and human rights activists.

All but one news channel is back on air and the Foreign Ministry said Thursday that all but "a few" had been freed. And Thursday's court ruling meant Musharraf could meet another key demand by resigning his military post and governing as a civilian. Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum said that could happen this weekend.

The Commonwealth voted at a meeting in Uganda to suspend Pakistan's membership because Musharraf failed to meet its Thursday deadline to end the crackdown and quit the military.

In Islamabad, the Foreign Ministry said the government was reviewing its ties with the group.

"The pace of progress towards normalcy will be determined by ground realities and legal requirements in Pakistan rather than unrealistic demands from outside," a ministry statement said. The government was "committed to restore full democracy," it said.

Qayyum said Thursday the emergency would be lifted "very soon" but no date has been set.

Pakistan was last kicked out of the Commonwealth in 1999 after Musharraf seized power in a coup. It took the country five years to be reinstated.

State-run Pakistan Television on Friday read out a message of support for Musharraf from another key ally, his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao, who said he "completely" understood Musharraf's efforts to stabilize Pakistan.

"I firmly believe that, under the leadership of your excellency, Pakistan is able to properly handle the internal and external challenges, realize smooth transition and continue to maintain stability and development," Hu was quoted as saying.

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