General Pervez Musharraf appeared to be heading for a showdown with his country's highest court last night after deporting the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif just hours after he had returned to Pakistan.
Amid tense and chaotic scenes at Islamabad's airport, Mr Sharif was put on to a plane bound for Saudi Arabia, four hours after he touched down and was arrested on corruption charges. The former premier arrived in the city of Jeddah last night where he was reportedly driven from the airport in a convoy of vehicles.
The carefully co-ordinated gambit by General Musharraf at least temporarily removes one of his main political challengers as he desperately tries to find a way of securing another five years as president. But the decision to deport Mr Sharif - seemingly in defiance of a ruling by Pakistan's Supreme Court - sets him up for another confrontation with the country's top judge.
The precise details surrounding Mr Sharif's deportation were unclear last night. A member of the country's ruling party said, having been arrested and charged, the former premier was given the option of going to jail, an option he chose but which was ultimately refused by the government. A government spokesman claimed that given the two choices Mr Sharif "opted to go abroad".
Either way, shortly after lunchtime Mr Sharif had been given a visa for Saudi Arabia, placed on a bus and driven to a Pakistan International Airlines flight.
Mr Sharif's brother Shahbaz, who had also been due to return to Pakistan but decided to stay in London, said their party would be taking the matter to the Supreme Court. "[My brother] was abducted out of Pakistan by General Musharraf and his cronies," he said. "It's contempt of court, a case of clear abduction. It is a fatal blow to the Pakistani people's rights. We will not give up at all. It is our country and we will return."
Mr Sharif had left London on Sunday night and his plane arrived at a deserted Islamabad airport shortly before 9am local time, the authorities having imposed a five-mile security zone. As the flight landed, his supporters on board cheered and yelled: "Go Musharraf, Go!"
Pakistani troops surrounded the plane and for 90 minutes the aircraft and its passengers waited on the runway while authorities tried unsuccessfully to convince Mr Sharif to give up his passport. …