ISLAMABAD - The Associated Press
Leaders of Pakistan's ruling coalition met yesterday to discuss who should succeed Pervez Musharraf as president, while a bombing outside a hospital and clashes with militants killed dozens and underscored the challenges facing the country.
The potentially divisive issues on the agenda include what to do with Musharraf after nearly nine years in power and how to restore judges fired by the former leader in a desperate attempt to cling to power.
The retired army general resigned Monday in the face of impeachment threats from the fragile ruling coalition, which is packed with his foes. He is believed to be in his army-guarded residence near the capital, Islamabad.
How the government deals with his succession - and whether it leads to a power struggle - is a looming question at a critical time. The militant threat is spreading in Pakistan's northwest, but the country also faces soaring inflation, chronic power shortages and a host of other economic problems.
Law Minister Farooq Naek said yesterday that the government had not struck an immunity deal with Musharraf, though supporters and foes suggested he had sought guarantees that he would not face criminal prosecution or be forced into exile.
"There is no deal with the president, and he had himself resigned," Naek told reporters.
Musharraf did not specify his plans during his emotional farewell speech on Monday, saying only that his future was in the hands of the people. But local media reports have suggested he might leave the country for security reasons - he is despised by Islamist militants - and is widely unpopular among ordinary Pakistanis.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States were being discussed as potential havens.
"He should not be allowed to leave," said Sadiqul Farooq, spokesman for the coalition's second-largest party, which has accused the former president of treason. "He should be tried for his crimes."
Pakistan's president is elected by lawmakers, a process that is supposed to be completed within 30 days.
Analysts say earlier infighting over Musharraf's future and the mechanics of bringing back judges he sacked late last year had distracted the government from tackling important issues.
"The coalition will now have to apply themselves because they will have no excuse," said Talat Masood, a prominent political commentator. "The problems and challenges the country faces are enormous and they cannot afford to lose any further time."
But the two sides have differed over the mechanism of restoring the judges, especially the deposed Supreme Court chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.
The Pakistan Peoples Party, headed by Asif Ali Zardari has so far refused to say that all should be reinstated immediately. But former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party, Pakistan Muslim League-N, demanded yesterday that Chaudhry and all others be "restored within the next 48 hours," said Farooq, the spokesman.
Sharif and senior party lieutenants abruptly left a meeting with Zardari yesterday without announcing any progress.
One of the biggest challenges ahead is how to deal with an al-Qaida and Taliban-backed insurgency in Pakistan's volatile northwest as well as in neighboring Afghanistan. A military operation against insurgents in the Bajur tribal region has reportedly killed hundreds and displaced more than 200,000 in recent weeks.
On Tuesday, police said security forces backed by helicopter gunships and artillery pounded targeted insurgents in Bajur, killing 11 suspected militants and five civilians over a 24-hour period.
Security forces stepped up the shelling after militants attacked a paramilitary post at Mamad Gatt near the Afghan border, said Fazal Rabbi, a local police commander. He said he did not know if any troops were killed.
Separately, government official Jamil Khan said 13 militants and five troops died Tuesday in a clash at a fort in the Nawagai area of Bajur.
Another 23 people were killed and 15 wounded in violence that officials said appeared to be sectarian - a bombing outside the emergency gate of a hospital in the northwest that was crowded with Shiite Muslim mourners.
Army chief in Kabul:
Meanwhile, Pakistan's army chief rushed to neighboring Afghanistan for meetings yesterday, the day after Musharraf announced his resignation, Afghan officials said.
Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani spoke with President Hamid Karzai over the phone in Kabul, three officials told The Associated Press. Kayani's visit was striking in that even Afghanistan's top leadership did not know he was coming, officials said.
Earlier yesterday, Karzai, in his first public response to Musharraf's resignation, appealed for a fresh approach to what has often been a troubled relationship between the two neighbors.
"I wish President Musharraf all the best. We have had difficult days together, but also we had good days together. All in all, we had a good relationship," Karzai told the AP in an interview.
"The most important thing . . . is not personalities. What is important is that we change our expectations and the way we formulate policies to meet those expectations," he said.
Karzai has been a strident critic of sanctuaries within Pakistan where he says insurgent Taliban and other militants regroup, rearm and train to fight in Afghanistan.He took over as army chief last year when Musharraf quit the post to become a civilian president, significantly reducing his influence in Pakistani politics.