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October 28, 1999
Commonwealth team to start Pak coup talks
David Ljunggren in Islamabad
A team of Commonwealth foreign ministers today opens two days of intensive talks in Islamabad to determine whether Pakistan's new military rulers intend to restore democratic rule soon.
The team is making the first high-level visit by a foreign delegation since General Pervez Musharraf overthrew prime minister Nawaz Sharief in a bloodless coup on October 12.
If the four ministers do not get the reassurances they want, they look set to recommend to Commonwealth leaders that Pakistan's temporary suspension from the 54-nation grouping of mainly former British colonies be formally confirmed.
But mission leader Lloyd Axworthy of Canada -- who has condemned the coup unreservedly -- stressed the team had not come with the sole purpose of probing the military's aims, saying the Commonwealth was also ready to help restore democracy.
''We're not just here as note-takers. There is a very clear mandate to engage in a dialogue -- this is an engagement mission as much as a fact-finding mission,'' he told reporters on board the plane carrying the team to Pakistan.
Axworthy said that when Commonwealth ministers provisionally suspended Pakistan on October 18, they had also said they were prepared to help boost the country's democracy.
''Both the Commonwealth through its own programmes as well as individual members are in a position to do that if there's a sign it would be not only welcomed, but that it would be relevant,'' he said.
''I don't think there's been any (other) group that's gone to say 'look, it's important to restore democracy' and (thinks) it's as important to have a carrot as it is to have a stick,'' Axworthy said.
The minister said international financial institutions whose funds Pakistan relies on to help shore up its ailing economy could well be influenced by the results of the mission.
Today the Commonwealth team will meet President Mohammad Rafiq Tarar, the head of the independent Human Rights Commission, the chief justice of the Supreme Court and a number of political parties.
The meeting with General Musharraf, the most important single part of the visit, is set to take place tomorrow.
But Commonwealth officials say they have still not been told whether they can meet Sharief, who is under house arrest and has not been seen since the coup.
''If they have any sense they'll let us meet him,'' said one member of the delegation, adding that to keep Sharief hidden would send the wrong message.
The other foreign ministers are from Malaysia, Ghana and Barbados which, like Canada, belong to the eight-nation Commonwealth ministerial action group which investigates abuses of democratic rule in member states.
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