LAHORE, Pakistan – A plane carrying exiled opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif (search) landed in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore on Tuesday, but the government immediately deported him amid an intense crackdown that has seen hundreds of his supporters arrested.
Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told The Associated Press that a Pakistan International Airlines (search) plane carrying Sharif had taken off from the Lahore airport en route to Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.
"His plane has left," Ahmed said. The plane took off just 90 minutes after Sharif arrived after more than three years in exile.
Sharif's brother, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was toppled by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf (search) in a bloodless coup in 1999. Musharraf has consolidated control since then, winning election as president in a referendum in which he was the only candidate.
The government has said the Sharif family was exiled to Saudi Arabia in 2000 for 10 years in a deal struck after Nawaz Sharif was convicted of trying to assassinate Musharraf as the coup unfloded. But the Supreme Court has said Shahbaz Sharif, who has been in London since a medical checkup there last year, has the right to return.
Authorities barricaded roads and detained more than 1,100 members of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party across Punjab province in the weeks ahead of his arrival "to prevent them from going to the Lahore airport to welcome Shahbaz Sharif," party spokesman Binyamin Rizvi said.
PML-N chairman Raja Zafarul Haq said Sharif's deportation was "highly condemnable" and "an insult to democracy."
There were reports of several clashes between police and demonstrators as Sharif's plane touched down in Lahore, with at least six activists and one policeman lightly injured. Activists pelted police with stones and shouted anti-government slogans, and police responded with tear gas and baton charges.
Reporters and other spectators were kept far from the airport, and Pakistani television said cell phone coverage around the facility was blocked. Hundreds of policemen were on hand to keep order. The Saudi Embassy said it had no information.
Shahbaz Sharif faces murder charges in connection with the 1998 killings of five men in Lahore. Their families claim he ordered police to fire on them when he was Punjab's chief minister. It wasn't clear if the charges would allow police to jail him when he stepped off the plane.
Sharif denies the charges, and said he was returning to defend himself.
"Now that they wish to incarcerate me, it's up to them. If they want to try me, it's up to them. If they want to deport me, it's up to them," he told reporters before leaving London. "But this would be a most deplorable, unconstitutional, unlawful measure, adding to the not very rosy history of Pakistan in terms of governance, both by the military and political leadership."
In Lahore, Rizvi accused the police of raiding and closing three party offices and launching raids to arrest local party leaders.
Party officials accused police of arresting dozens of activists on Tuesday in cities across Punjab, including Multan, Gujranwala, Gujar Khan and Bahawalpur.
Police insisted the steps they had taken were for security. They said they've detained fewer than 100 people — who can be held for 90 days without charge to maintain public order.
"We are increasing security just to maintain law and order, and it is not fair to say that we are victimizing the opposition," said police officer Aftab Cheema in Lahore.
Among the detainees was Mamoona Hashmi, daughter of Pakistan Muslim League-N acting president Javed Hashmi — who last month was jailed for 23 years on sedition charges.
Mamoona was detained Tuesday as she arrived at Lahore airport to greet Sharif.