Musharrafs fate hangs in balance

19 Aug 2008

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ISLAMABAD Pervez Musharraf faced an uncertain fate on Tuesday after his resignation as president of Pakistan, as the countrys fractious ruling coalition prepared to pick a replacement for the key US ally.

The former army chief bowed out in a televised address on Monday to avoid the threat of impeachment charges by the nuclear-armed nations government, nine years after he grabbed power in a bloodless military coup.

Speculation swirled that Musharrafs decision came after a deal brokered by Pakistans powerful military and the United States to avoid criminal charges, but it remained unclear where he would spend his retirement.

Officials from both the ruling coalition and the security services said that in the wake of his resignation Musharraf would travel to close ally Saudi Arabia in coming days to perform Muslim rites.

A senior coalition official told AFP that Musharraf would then head for London or Turkey, but his aides insisted he would return after his religious duties in the Gulf kingdom.

The party of Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted by Musharraf in 1999, has said that the former president should not be granted a safe exit but the leading group in the coalition, led by the widower of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, has remained quiet.

Musharrafs decision to quit came after the coalition said it was ready to press ahead with impeachment as early as Tuesday on charges that reportedly included violating the constitution.

His troubles began last year after his move to sack the judges sparked mass protests. He declared a state of emergency in November and then was compelled to quit as army chief within weeks.

He was also backed into a corner by the resurgence of Islamic militants in the tribal areas along Pakistans border with Afghanistan, who launched a massive wave of attacks last year that left more than 1,000 dead.

In his lengthy television address, the linchpin in the US-led war on terror said that charges against him would never stand up, but said he was resigning to avoid a damaging battle with the coalition over his impeachment.

Meanwhile the coalition, which defeated Musharrafs allies in elections in February, was set to begin discussions on the next president and on the restoration of senior judges sacked under the ex-Generals emergency rule in November.

Senate chairman Mohammedmian Soomro -- who also served as caretaker prime minister during emergency rule -- is standing in as acting president.

An official at Pakistans election commission said that a new president had to be chosen within 30 days of Musharrafs resignation.

Bhuttos widower and the most powerful figure in the coalition, Asif Ali Zardari, is likely too much of a divisive figure to stand for the presidency, officials in both coalition parties said.

The government was considering a candidate from one of Pakistans smaller provinces, the officials said, including Mehmud Khan Achakzai, from a nationalist party in southwestern Baluchistan province, and Mehmud Khan Achakzai from southern Sindh province.

It could also opt for a female candidate including the speaker of the national assembly, or lower house of parliament, Fehmida Mirza, the officials added.

Meanwhile the issue of the judges continues to plague the coalition.

It agreed in May to restore the judges whom Musharraf ousted in order to push through his allegedly unconstitutional re-election for another five-year term as president, but has failed to do so.

Divisions between the coalition partners, who feuded throughout the 1990s, could further threaten Pakistans stability and even herald fresh elections as it combats a spiralling economic crisis and mounting Islamist militancy.

World leaders urged Pakistan to place a premium on stability and unity following Musharrafs resignation.

President Bush looks forward to working with the Government of Pakistan on the economic, political and security challenges they face, US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in a statement on behalf of the US leader.