ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Leaders of Pakistan's ruling coalition discussed Tuesday how to replace former President Pervez Musharraf and what to do with the man who ruled for nine years, while militant violence underscored the challenges facing the country.
Another potentially divisive issue on the agenda is how to restore judges Musharraf fired in a desperate attempt to cling to power. The meeting ended abruptly and no progress was announced.
The retired army general resigned Monday in the face of impeachment threats from the fragile ruling coalition, which is packed with his foes. He is believed to be in his army-guarded residence near the capital, Islamabad.
How the government deals with his succession — and whether it leads to a power struggle — is a looming question at a critical time.
The militant threat is spreading in Pakistan's northwest — with clashes between the army and insurgents killing at least 29 people since Musharraf's exit — adding to uncertainty about the new government's approach to tackling extremist violence. Unlike Musharraf, who took a hard line against the insurgents, the coalition has sought to negotiate peace treaties with tribal leaders in the restive northwest to curb the violence.
The country is also facing soaring inflation, chronic power shortages and a host of other economic problems.
Law Minister Farooq Naek said Tuesday that the government had not struck an immunity deal with Musharraf, though supporters and foes suggested he had sought guarantees that he would not face criminal prosecution or be forced into exile.
"There is no deal with the president, and he had himself resigned," Naek told reporters.
Musharraf did not specify his plans during his emotional farewell speech on Monday, saying only that his future was in the hands of the people. But local media reports have suggested he might leave the country for security reasons — he is despised by Islamist militants and is widely unpopular among ordinary Pakistanis.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States were being discussed as potential havens.
"He should not be allowed to leave," said Sadiqul Farooq, spokesman for the coalition's second-largest party, which has accused the former president of treason. "He should be tried for his crimes."
Pakistan's president is elected by lawmakers, a process that is supposed to be completed within 30 days.
Musharraf seized control of the government in a 1999 coup and dominated Pakistan for years, supporting the U.S. in the war on terror. Pakistanis blamed rising violence in the country on his alliance with Washington.
For many, the final straw came last year when Musharraf imposed emergency rule and sacked dozens of judges who could challenge his rule — one of the key topics facing ruling coalition leaders on Tuesday.
The two sides have differed over the how to restore the judges, especially the deposed Supreme Court chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.
The Pakistan Peoples Party, headed by Asif Ali Zardari has so far refused to say that all should be reinstated immediately.
But Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party, Pakistan Muslim League-N, demanded Tuesday that Chaudhry and all others be "restored within the next 48 hours," said Farooq, the spokesman.
Musharraf's rivals won February parliamentary elections, largely sidelining him while clamoring for him to quit. They announced an impeachment campaign earlier this month, leading Musharraf to ultimately calculate that he could not remain in power.
Analysts said earlier infighting over Musharraf's future and the mechanics of bringing back the judges he fired late last year had distracted the government from tackling important issues.
"The coalition will now have to apply themselves because they will have no excuse," said Talat Masood, a prominent political commentator.
One of the biggest challenges ahead is how to deal with an al-Qaida and Taliban-backed insurgency in Pakistan's volatile northwest as well as in neighboring Afghanistan.
A military operation against insurgents in the Bajur tribal region has reportedly killed hundreds and displaced more than 200,000 in recent weeks.
On Tuesday, police said security forces backed by helicopter gunships and artillery pounded targeted insurgents in Bajur, killing 11 suspected militants and five civilians over a 24-hour period.
Separately, government official Jamil Khan said 13 militants and five troops died Tuesday in a clash at a fort in the Nawagai area of Bajur.
Another 27 people were killed and 35 wounded in a suicide blast outside the emergency gate of a hospital crowded with Shiite Muslim mourners, according to area police chief Nasir Mahmood.
A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the explosion at Dera Ismail Khan District Hospital, saying it was targeting security forces. But Mohsin Shah, a top district official, said the motive appeared to be sectarian, noting the area has seen much friction between the country's Sunni Muslim majority and Shiites.