(With additional reporting by Amir Wasim, Syed Irfan Raza, Munawar Azeem and Baqir Sajjad Syed)

ISLAMABAD, Sept 9: A major showdown between thousands of riot police and supporters of Nawaz Sharif looked imminent on Monday as a massive security force started to block all entry points to the Islamabad airport and several thousand supporters of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and its allied parties vowed to gather in the area to receive the former prime minister when he arrives in the morning by prematurely ending his ten-year term of exile.

The Islamabad Airport was put on red alert while Peshawar, Lahore and Karachi airports were on high alert late on Sunday night.

A PIA flight being used by Nawaz Sharif for the return was expected to touch down at Islamabad around noon, but security drill to prevent opposition supporters was likely to start in the early hours of the morning.

Commenting on the last-minute decision which meant Shahbaz Sharif would not accompany his brother, highly informed sources in the airline industry told Dawn that there was a possibility that Shahbaz Sharif may take a Gulf Air flight for the homeward journey. They said that Nawaz Sharif was, in all likelihood, on a PIA flight PK 786, for which he had already made suitable arrangements, but the plan was kept secret from many of his party supporters.

All schools in the twin cities have already been shut down for the day, and with little or no public transport, attendance in offices was expected to be minimal.

This is the first time in seven years that Nawaz Sharif is making an attempt to return to Pakistan, although younger brother Shabaz did try to make a comeback three years ago, but was immediately put on a waiting aircraft in Lahore, and sent to Saudi Arabia, where they had been living in exile under an agreement between the two governments, and with the consent of the Sharif family.

There was a brief moment of disappointment in the opposition camp when a Lebanese politician, Saad Harriri along with a senior Saudi envoy, declared in Islamabad on Saturday that indeed there was a signed paper under which the Sharifs had gone into exile, and it was later acknowledged by Nawaz Sharif in London, although he claimed that the understanding was for five years and not an entire decade, as the written document stated. But the enthusiasm started to return once the former prime minister declared that come what may, he was returning to Pakistan. “Even if they take me directly to a prison, it will not deter me from return to my homeland,” Nawaz Sharif told reporters before leaving London.

But neither he nor any of his party leaders in Islamabad made any comment on reports that arrangements were also being made by the Pakistani authorities to deport him, possibly to Saudi Arabia. Ignoring any such possibility, the PML (N) leaders in Islamabad announced that along with other senior politicians from the opposition alliance, APDM, they would go to the airport to receive the former prime minister.

A strange mixture of excitement and tension had started to build in and around the Islamabad airport, where riot police, with help from the municipal authorities, had started to lay a siege. In some areas barbed-wires were being laid, and at other places concrete boulders were being brought in to prevent any flow of, what were being described as “miscreants” or “undesirable elements”.

At the same time, special arrangements were also being made to facilitate the arriving and departing passengers during the time of the expected showdown, with special shuttle service being lined up, both for Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

The authorities had started to seal off the airport area 10pm, and as a precautionary measure had cancelled all the security passes meant for media persons, and they were asked to vacate the area. The civil aviation authority issued a circular regarding the security arrangement at the airport that said ‘all VIP passes (green), protocol passes (white) and temporary passes shall be suspended on Sept 9 and 10 for Islamabad airport only’.

Extra units of armed police had already been stationed well inside the airport areas, with dozens of them taking positions in the parking lot, as well as lobbies and corridors that lead to the main arrival and departure lounge. A correspondent for Dawn, who briefly slipped inside the security cordon, later said it appeared like a war-zone where preparations were under way for what was being perceived in government circles as the ‘biggest political enemy’.

From the kind of preparations it appeared quite obvious that the government was in no mood to allow supporters of the PML(N) or any other opposition party to come even close to the airport area, not to talk of permitting them to receive Nawaz Sharif. A senior police official told Dawn a large force had already been put on stand-by and if the need was felt, it would be deployed to take on any protesters.

“We can take any chances, and our brief is to prevent any political worker from coming close to the airport area” said the official. “If you like, you can call it zero tolerance.”

OVER-REACTION: To many onlookers it appeared to be a massive over-reaction as throughout the day hardly any serious preparations were witnessed anywhere in Rawalpindi or Islamabad by the opposition supporters, which could give the indication that plans were being made to gather hundreds of thousands of people for the airport welcome. Unlike in the past, when any political event was preceded by weeks of street mobilisation, Rawalpindi had remained devoid of any such activity, with only a handful of banners or posters being put up in a few corners, any virtually no wall-chalking or pamphlets in circulation.

Also contrary to the earlier claims by the PML(N) leaders that they intend to gather about a million people for the reception, some opposition leaders were now hoping against hope that people may come on their own to receive the former prime minister. One explanation for such lukewarm atmosphere given by a senior PML(N) leader, Javed Hashmi, was that because of the police crackdown, either their supporters had been arrested or they had gone underground.

Another party leader said even otherwise the PML members have been asked to lie low and try to remain peaceful and not to give the authorities any excuse to resort to arm-twisting tactics.

Leaders of the PML-N claimed that nearly 2,700 of their

members had already been arrested, and raids were still being carried out to round up many more.

But as night fell on Islamabad and Rawalpindi, some political activity picked up, with clear indications coming form the opposition sources that planning was afoot to bring out large number of supporters from every nook and corner, and to make a serious attempt to reach the airport from all possible directions.

Opposition sources said the PML(N) have decided to resist forcefully if Nawaz Sharif was arrested or deported on the return. They claimed that thousands of PML-N workers led by their district and national leaders would reach the airport early in the morning.

Party sources said eight groups each comprising 700 die-hard workers of the PML-N had been formed to provide security cover to Nawaz Sharif. “These groups would not only provide security but also facilitate party workers and leaders while proceeding to the airport despite restrictions being laid by heavy security forces not only at the airport but across the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad and other parts of the country,” a leader of Muslim Student Federation (MSF) Sajid Abbasi said.

The airport security force and the other airport employees were directed to stay put at the airport and those with duties on Monday were asked to reach there overnight because they would not be able to arrive in the morning due to security arrangements. The director general of airports was also called in from Karachi to himself supervise the situation and so was the establishment of a control centre in the Police annexe from where the entire provincial hierarchy including chief secretary, home secretary and chief commissioner Punjab would directly monitor the security situation.

Scores of security pickets have been set up by the law enforcement agencies across Rawalpindi. Containers have been put at Attock Bridge and only selective people are allowed to enter. Likewise, the Tarnol crossing on the Peshawar-Rawalpindi section of the GT road has also been closed for public, while barricades have been laid down at Rawat.

Sajid Abbasi said the party workers and leaders in Islamabad and those from Northern areas, Murree and adjoining areas would gather at Aabpara Chowk in the morning from where they would proceed to the airport in a rally. He said police had started raids on the houses of leaders including Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and prominent workers of the party to arrest them so that the plan of Nawaz Sharif’s reception could be flopped. However, Shahid Khaqan, Zafar Ali Shah and Dr Tariq managed to escape when police raided their residences.

Teams of security forces had been deployed at Murree, Kahuta, Kotli Sattian, Attock Bridge, Grand Trunk Road and all entry points of the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad to where barricades and rings of barbed wire had been erected to stop PML workers from proceeding to the airport.

Despite repeated attempts no one from the interior ministry could be contacted to describe the steps to maintain law and order during reception of Nawaz Sharif as Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao had left for Peshawar and Secretary Interior Syed Kamal Shah and spokesman of the ministry Brig Javed Iqbal Cheema were not picking up their telephones.