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Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif Returns to Pakistan After 8 Years in Exile

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif prepared to meet a Monday deadline to register for Pakistan's key January parliamentary elections, a day after he returned from exile to an ecstatic welcome from thousands of his supporters.

Sharif has said he is registering to keep his options open, but that he will boycott the vote unless President Gen. Pervez Musharraf ends emergency rule, frees opponents and restores the Supreme Court, which was purged of independent judges.

Sharif, who was ousted by Musharraf in a 1999 coup, was to register in the main court complex in Lahore — his hometown and political power base — at the head of a rally of supporters.

The arrival Sunday of one of Musharraf's harshest critics was a fresh challenge for the president, who has faced intense domestic and international condemnation since he declared emergency rule on Nov. 3. An opposition boycott could deal a severe blow to the president, who has claimed Pakistan is heading toward democracy.

"Musharraf has taken this country to the brink of destruction," Sharif told crowds of supporters and onlookers from the top of a truck carrying him from the airport into his home city of Lahore.

"When the constitution, fundamental rights are suspended, when people live difficult lives, when judges who make decisions according to the constitution are ousted, will elections in such a situation not be a fraud?" he said.

"Should not such elections be boycotted?" Sharif asked, prompting chants of "boycott, boycott!"

He arrived from Saudi Arabia, where has spent most of his eight years in exile.

Musharraf swiftly booted Sharif back to the kingdom when he flew into Pakistan in September. But the Pakistani leader appears to have lost the support of the Saudi royal family, who provided a special flight to carry Sharif and a host of his relatives home.

The Saudis had warned Musharraf not to interfere with Sharif's return, said a diplomat from a Muslim nation who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Sharif had to fight his way through wildly cheering supporters outside the airport terminal. He looked composed as he insisted that his return was "not the result of any deal" with Musharraf.

A car carrying Sharif left the airport in a snail-paced procession toward a shrine in the center of the city, surrounded by supporters waving the green flags of his party and chanting "Musharraf go!"

Police had deployed some 5,000 officers to prevent chaos at the airport and protect Sharif from the fate of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whose homecoming was wrecked by a suicide bombing that killed about 150 people.

Sharif completed his visit to the shrine without incident, and just after daybreak Monday his convoy drove off to his family home outside Lahore. The former prime minister visited the tomb of his father near the family complex on Monday.

Sharif's party has said he and his brother will file their papers at noon Monday, just before the deadline for nominations for the Jan. 8 vote.

Bhutto filed her nomination papers on Sunday, but both former premiers say a broad opposition coalition still could decide to boycott if Musharraf does not take steps to ensure the election is fair.

Equally tricky for Musharraf would be an alliance between Sharif and Bhutto. Washington had been coaxing Bhutto toward an alliance with the embattled dictator until the emergency threw Pakistani politics into confusion.

Bhutto welcomed Sharif's surprise return and did not rule out an election alliance with her former political foe.

Musharraf is moving quickly to ease some of the restrictions he imposed under the emergency and to belatedly make good on a pledge to end military rule.

Most of the thousands of opponents, human rights activists and lawyers detained since Nov. 3 have been released. But Musharraf has so far resisted strong pressure from the United States — his biggest foreign ally — to lift the emergency and restore the constitution.