LONDON – Pakistan's ex-military ruler Pervez Musharraf has apologized for mistakes made during his last term in office as he launched a bid to return to power.
Musharraf told scores of cheering supporters on Friday that some of his decisions had negative repercussions for his nation of 175 million. But the leader who stepped down in 2008 amid protests and under the threat of impeachment stopped short of specifying what the mistakes had been. Critics have accused him of doing little to improve Pakistan's stagnant economy and not doing enough to clean up the political infighting that has plagued the country.
"I take this opportunity to apologize," he said. "Human beings make mistakes."
The 67-year-old former leader spoke as he launched a new political party, arguing that the current leadership offers no hope of alleviating the "darkness that prevails in Pakistan." He said under his government there would be progress in every field.
"I have confidence I can lead Pakistan toward light," he said.
Numerous terror plots and attacks, including the 2005 suicide bombings that killed 52 commuters in London and an active plot to wage Mumbai-style shooting sprees in Europe, have been seeded in Pakistan's tribal areas.
Musharraf declared that he had the experience to tackle the challenges of al-Qaida, the Taliban in the mountainous tribal regions and the spread of extremism in Pakistan. He insisted that, unless Pakistan was part of the fight against terrorism and extremism, "that fight will not succeed."
"There will be zero tolerance for extremism," he said, adding: "People should be patient with Pakistan."
He said he wouldn't do anything different this time around to tackle extremism, but improving the economy was a critical part of the equation. Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, also said he didn't support another military coup and doubted another one is imminent.
Security was tight for the launch, which took place at a storied and posh former gentlemen's club. Reporters were swept for weapons and explosives before coming in, then bomb-sniffing dogs were brought into the room where about 200 people applauded at the announcement.
Several Pakistani politicians have used London in recent years to announce their intended political comebacks though few have been successful. Some 1 million Britons are of Pakistani descent and many retain ties to Pakistan.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted in the 1999 coup, stayed in the limelight by holding numerous news conferences about his return.
At the same time, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto — who struck a deal with Musharraf to drop corruption charges against her should she return to the country — announced from London in 2007 that she planned to return to Pakistan after nearly a decade in exile.
Bhutto was assassinated in Pakistan at a political rally in late 2007, three months after her return. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who continues to be dogged by corruption allegations, became Pakistan's president in 2008.
Bhutto's comeback was bolstered by the power of the Bhutto political legacy — Bhutto's father was a beloved figure among the poor. But Musharraf, who called for an end to "hereditary politics," doesn't enjoy the same support, and his return would face many obstacles.
Many critics would likely try to prevent it through the courts. Some want him tried for treason for violating the constitution when he seized power in 1999. Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, whom Musharraf fired in 2007, is back in office and unlikely to give him an easy ride.
Musharraf may be arrested or deported, just as Sharif was upon his return to Pakistan in 2007. Musharraf seemed unconcerned.
"There is no case against me in the courts of Pakistan today," he said. "Whatever cases there have been, have been motivated politically. ... I am prepared to face anything. I am not afraid."
It also is unclear how much support Musharraf still has in the military. Many of his close allies in the army and in the intelligence services have retired.
"He doesn't have the same kind of clout he did," Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Pakistan's ambassador to Britain who was appointed under Musharraf, told The Associated Press on Friday. "He's yesterday's man."
Senator Tariq Azim of Pakistan Muslim League-Q, Musharraf's old party, said Musharraf should rethink this return.
"This is the wrong time for him to jump in and launch a new political party ... He should now rest a while."
Musharraf was Pakistan's leader when Islamist militants began attacking the state in earnest and was a key ally in the Bush administration's so-called war on terror after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
While in power, Musharraf launched several offensives against militants in the northwest, but he struck deals with insurgents when it became clear the army could not win by sheer force.
Pakistan's army and the current government, however, arguably have been more forceful and successful in flushing out al-Qaida operatives and Taliban supporters.
Musharraf's new political party must be registered in Pakistan before the country's scheduled 2013 elections. He will spread his message at a rally in Birmingham on Saturday.
Associated Press Writer Chris Brummitt contributed to this report from Islamabad.