Saturday, August 16, 2008

Musharraf seeks immunity

Musharraf seeks immunity

By Zeeshan Haider

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Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf is ready to resign rather than face impeachment but is seeking immunity from prosecution and agreement on a safe place to live, coalition government officials said on Friday.

Speculation has been mounting that the former army chief Musharraf and firm US ally would quit since the ruling coalition, led by the party of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, said last week it planned to impeach him.

A spokesperson for the president has repeatedly denied media reports that he was about to quit, and he did so again on Friday, saying "baseless and malicious" reports about the president's plan to resign were damaging the economy.

A prominent ally of Musharraf's, the leader of the main party that has backs him, also said the president would not resign but would face any impeachment charges in parliament.

But coalition officials said negotiations on the terms of the unpopular president's resignation were going on, although the two main coalition parties differed on whether Musharraf should face trial if he quits.

"He is ready to resign but he is putting conditions like indemnity for the November 3 action," said the official, who declined to be identified, referring to Musharraf's imposition of six weeks of emergency rule in 2007.

"Back-door talks are still going on. Things have not yet been finalised. Let's see what happens," said the official, who has knowledge of the talks.

The long-running crisis surrounding Musharraf's future has heightened concern in the United States and among other allies about the stability of the nuclear-armed Muslim state, which is in the front line of the campaign against Islamist militancy.

Uncertainty about his fate has been unnerving investors, with the rupee weakening on Friday to another record low against the dollar, at about 76,30/40, for the fourth straight session.

But stocks, which have been hovering near two-year lows, rose 3,6 percent as investors cheered Musharraf's possible departure as a milestone that would ease political tension.

Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup but has been isolated since his allies lost a February election.

In Washington, White House spokesperson Dana Perino referred to reports of Musharraf's resignation plan as a "rumour mill", adding that the United States considered the leadership of Pakistan an issue for Pakistanis.

Musharraf's spokesman, retired Major-General Rashid Qureshi, said reports of a resignation plan were "baseless and malicious" and he knew nothing about any talks.

But Tariq Azeem Khan, a politician close to Musharraf and a former deputy government minister, said talks were going on.

"Well-wishers are trying to ensure that matters are settled amicably through discussions rather than going through a long, protracted impeachment process," he said.

The leader of the main pro-Mushaaraf party, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, said Musharraf would not resign.

"The president has already decided to defend himself in parliament ... he's not going to resign," Hussain told Dawn TV.

Coalition officials said a "charge sheet" of accusations against Musharraf is due to be presented to parliament next week.

As pressure has mounted on Musharraf, questions have been raised about the reaction of the army, which has ruled for more than half the country's history since its founding in 1947.

But coalition leaders said this week the army, would not intervene to back its old boss. Analysts say the army is loath to step into the fray.

Bhutto's party says a decision on whether Musharraf should be put on trial after stepping down should be left to parliament.

But the second biggest coalition party, of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who Musharraf ousted in 1999, is demanding he be put on trial.

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