Musharraf to visit China despite ouster rumors

Aug. 06, 2008, 3:07 p.m. (ET)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Wednesday decided to visit the Beijing Olympic Games despite media reports that the ruling coalition has agreed on steps to remove him.

The leaders of Pakistan's main ruling parties met for a second day in Islamabad Wednesday to resolve differences over how to restore dozens of judges fired by Musharraf last year and to consider the unpopular president's fate.

Pakistani newspapers, citing unnamed sources, reported that Asif Ali Zardari, head of the largest coalition party, and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who heads the second-biggest party, reached a consensus Tuesday on steps to oust Musharraf.

Dawn daily said they had agreed to formally request that Musharraf step down and would impeach him through parliamentary measures "if he did not oblige."

Party officials declined to comment on the reports. After hours of talks Wednesday at Zardari's Islamabad residence, Sharif left to consult with members of his party. He returned to Zardari's later and their meeting continued late into the evening, said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Zardari's party. Details were not available.

Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, who heads the main pro-Musharraf party, claimed Wednesday the coalition lacked the two-thirds majority of lawmakers in Parliament to impeach the president.

The Foreign Ministry announced Wednesday morning that Musharraf's trip had been canceled. In the evening, it issued another statement saying it was on again.

"In view of our special relations with China, the President (Musharraf) has decided to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics," the ministry said.

Musharraf, who was originally scheduled to leave Wednesday, will travel to China Thursday.

It was not clear why the former army strongman changed his mind. The initial announcement fueled speculation he did not want to leave Pakistan when the coalition was discussing his ouster.

Musharraf, who ousted Sharif in a bloodless coup and then dominated Pakistan for eight years, was sidelined when Zardari and Sharif formed a coalition government after trouncing the former general's allies in elections this February.

But it has been a troubled alliance. Sharif pulled his ministers from the Cabinet in May after Zardari - seemingly leery of confrontation with the U.S.-backed president - stalled on restoring the judges. The former premier has also been more hawkish than Zardari in demanding the ouster of Musharraf.

While both party leaders say they want to sustain the coalition, their standoff has hampered the functioning of the government amid mounting public frustration at spiraling food and fuel prices and growing Islamic militancy.

Musharraf has in recent weeks made more public appearances and comments - seen by some in Pakistan as an attempt to show he remains a political force despite ceding control of the army and having little say in the day-to-day running of the country.

The president retains the constitutional power to dissolve Parliament. Given Musharraf's continuing unpopularity, to exercise that power would be highly controversial - particularly if it were seen as a bid for his own political survival.

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