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October 29, 1999
Commonwealth blows hot and cold on Pak
Commonwealth ministers today meet General Pervez Musharraf who toppled Pakistan's civilian government for talks that could decide whether Islamabad is suspended from the 54-member grouping.
Before the four foreign ministers arrived, Commonwealth officials said that unless they were given a firm timetable, they would recommend to a summit of Commonwealth leaders next month that Pakistan's provisional suspension be made permanent.
But the Commonwealth's language has gradually changed and the grouping of mainly former British colonies is now talking about engaging Pakistan and helping it back to democracy.
The foreign ministers are set to hold a 10.30 AM (1100 hours IST) meeting with General Musharraf, who overthrew Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief in a bloodless coup on October 12.
The ministers, led by Canada's Lloyd Axworthy, urged senior figures in the military-led government to produce a timetable for the return to democracy.
One delegation member said he seriously doubted whether the mission would recommend Pakistan be formally suspended.
''The ultimate question of membership and suspension...will depend still on some degree what commitments the government makes towards a plan, a proposal, and we won't have a better idea until we meet with the general tomorrow,'' Axworthy told reporters at the end of the first day of meetings.
Some Commonwealth delegates said they were surprised at how little protest there had been from politicians -- including members of Sharief's own party -- about the removal of the highly unpopular government.
The opposition members said democracy should be restored but were deeply split over how long the new government should be given, with some venturing 90 days while others suggested up to two years.
''There was a strong sense that this is a turning point for Pakistan and there could be an opportunity for changing a lot of the rules on which democracy can operate,'' Axworthy said.
Despite frequent requests the team has not yet been allowed to see Sharief, who has been under house arrest for the last two weeks.
The Pakistani government issued a statement defending the coup, saying it had been explained to Axworthy and his team that martial law had not been declared, freedom of the press was being respected and pointing to what it said was public support for the coup.
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