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Back to the future? Countdown to the Oct 12 coup

October 12, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Oct 11 If Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was planning for months to remove Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf, in October 1999, it was the general who had a contingency plan ready to frustrate any such move.

Exactly 10 years ago a high drama was played out at an altitude of thousands of metres, which changed the course of history in Pakistan.

When the prime minister sacked General Musharraf and allegedly did not allow his plane - coming from Colombo (via Male) Sri Lanka - to land anywhere in Pakistan, the top military commanders reacted.

Some considered it a conspiracy; others called it a gamble. In this war of nerves, everyone was fully involved - on the ground and in the plane.

What happened on October 12, 1999, had its roots in the preceding months. It was a clash of two titans, in which one was bound to lose.

”In August 1999, Mian Sharif directed his son (Nawaz Sharif) to get rid of General Musharraf. He instructed this soon after the general left their Raiwind residence,” recalls PML-Q President Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, who was then the interior minister.

He claims late Mian Sharif himself told him that he “did not like the look in General Musharraf's eyes”.

Mr Shujaat later narrated the same incident to General Musharraf, who mentioned it on page-113 of his autobiography.

Whatever happened on that fateful day is known to everyone, but according to Lt-Gen (retd) Saleem Haider, the then Principle Staff Officer at the GHQ, the military coup was not spontaneous.

“I believe the commanders were working on it for a long time. But I was never consulted by General Musharraf or any other commander in this regard,” he claims.

According to him, the army could not digest the removal of General Jehangir Karamat, who was the predecessor of General Musharraf, and gave a statement, backing the setting up of a national security council, a move at variance with the thinking of the political leadership of that time.

”Army was not happy the way General Jehangir Karamat was forced to resign,” General Haider concedes.

Nawaz replaced General Karamat with General Musharraf in 1998, but his trust in the new army chief proved to be short-lived. Differences emerged between the two on multiple issues.

The former prime minister had close association with Lt-Gen Tariq Pervez, who was serving as corps commander Quetta. Tariq Pervez was allegedly sharing the proceedings of Corps Commanders' meetings with Nawaz Sharif. He denies doing any such thing.

General Musharraf was quick to sack him. But this administrative decision embarrassed the prime minister. Meanwhile, the Kargil crisis brought the situation to a head.

The Sharifs invited Musharraf to their sprawling Raiwind residence in August 1999, apparently to bring down the rising tension.

”I was there at the meeting. We invited him to remove any misunderstanding that may have existed. My grandfather, father and uncle were there. They embraced each other, had dinner together and then he (General Musharraf) left,” recalls Hamza Shahbaz, the son of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif.

The Sharifs assert it was a sincere move to remove all misunderstandings. But General Musharraf described it as an attempt to buy time and to catch him off guard.

It was after this meeting that Mian Nawaz Sharif's father told his son to get rid of General Musharraf since the look in his eye was dangerous.

It was against this backdrop that General Musharraf left for Sri Lanka, without realising that he would be returning to a different Pakistan.

Going by the account given by General Musharraf and the pilot Captain Sarwat, who later gave his statement before a court of law, the problem started when the plane was approaching Karachi airport.

The control tower told the pilot not to land at Karachi. The other choice was Nawabshah airport. But the pilot was told he could not land anywhere in Pakistan.

The pilot informed General Musharraf about the developments, who went into the cockpit and spoke to the control tower. The plane finally landed, but after a nerve-racking high drama - which ended only after army commanders loyal to General Musharraf took charge of the situation on the ground.

Nawaz Sharif was booked for hijacking flight PK-805. And it took him more than nine years to get himself cleared of the charge. All along Nawaz Sharif's loyalists insisted that it was a drama staged by the military to take over the country.

”It was a drama. We did nothing. The pilot deleted the last 30 minutes' conversation, in which General Musharraf talked to his commanders and consolidated his command in the country. The coup was underway, even before the flight of General Musharraf took off from Mali Airport,” claims Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the then Chairman of Pakistan International Airlines.

General Musharraf has himself given a thrilling account of the incident in his autobiography.

It all started at around 5pm on October 12, 1999, with the sacking of General Musharraf and appointment of Director-General of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) General Ziauddin Butt as new army chief.

Top commanders including Chief of General Staff Lt-General Muhammad Aziz, Rawalpindi Corps Commander Lt-Gen Mehmood Ahmed, Director General of Military Operations Maj-Gen Shahid Aziz, Corps Commanders Karachi Lt-Gen Muzaffar Usmani and Triple One Brigade commander Brig Salahuddin Satti refused to accept Gen Butt as their chief and staged the coup.

Every military dictator in Pakistan needed some justification for the coup and to perpetuate his rule. General Musharraf was no exception. And he began to rope in some of the politicians and seasonal manipulators. One of them was constitutional expert Shariffudin Pirzada who had assisted General Ziaul Haq as well.

”I was called by General Musharraf. I went there. Some corps commanders wanted to impose the Martial Law. I insisted that General Musharraf should become the chief executive and also retain the president for continuity of the system,” Pirzada recalls.

He asserts that it was then feared that some of the apex court judges might pass a judgment against General Musharraf. ”Only then it was decided to ask the judges to take oath under the PCO. Four judges were not invited to take the oath,” he says.

Among the PCO judges was Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the present Chief Justice of Pakistan. He was among the judges who not only validated General Musharraf's coup, but allowed him to amend the Constitution.

Watch Shahzad Raza's documentary Making of a coup, on DawnNews today at 1530 and 2330 hours.