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October 30, 1999
Commonwealth unlikely to suspend Pak
David Ljunggren in Islamabad
Commonwealth ministers who spent two days trying to investigate whether Pakistan's military-led government intended to restore democracy have softened their tone and are unlikely to recommend the country be suspended, officials said.
The delegation of four Commonwealth foreign ministers failed to get a date for the return of democracy or to see ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharief.
The team, led by Canada's Lloyd Axworthy, was the first high-level mission to visit Pakistan since army chief General Pervez Musharraf deposed Sharief in a bloodless October 12 coup.
They said the delegation would urge a summit of Commonwealth leaders next month to give Islamabad six months to prove it was serious about returning the country to civilian rule or face further sanctions.
Axworthy said General Musharraf vetoed a meeting with Sharief but had promised the ministers could speak to him by telephone from their hotel suite.
But after waiting for more than an hour, the call failed to materialise and Pakistani officials said Sharief did not want to talk by telephone.
The Commonwealth has banned Pakistan from taking part in its meetings and threatened to push for formal suspension of membership, which would mean the end of all technical assistance to the impoverished country.
But the officials said the four ministers realised after their talks with officials that the situation in Pakistan was much more complex than it had first appeared.
Asked whether the ministers were now distancing themselves from the idea that Pakistan be formally suspended, one member of the mission said, ''That's a good assessment.''
The ministers belonged to the eight-nation Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, set up to investigate abuses of democracy among the 54-member grouping of mainly former British colonies.
Yesterday the team met General Musharraf, who like other senior officials said Sharief's ''chaotic'' rule had been leading the country to disaster and pointed to signs that the general public had supported the army takeover.
General Musharraf refused to produce the timetable the Commonwealth wanted, saying he wanted to focus on reforming the economy and the legal system.
But the officials said they had been encouraged by his promises of reforms, although they made clear that the CMAG would be watching events in Pakistan very closely.
''It's likely that we'll recommend Pakistan be given six months to make good on its promises. If it doesn't, we'll write to all the heads of government and tell them we propose to suspend the country immediately,'' said one official.
The officials said the ministers had taken note of the fact that virtually none of the people they talked to had expressed any support for Sharief's chaotic 31-month rule. Even the prime minister's own party did not ask for his restoration.
But he also said it was clear that General Musharraf and his team had no long-term plan of action and therefore needed time to formulate a concerted long-term policy.
''They're doing this on the back of a cigarette carton. They are like a schoolchild who wins election as class president and then thinks 'what the hell do I do now?''' he said.
Sharief is under house arrest and has not been seen since the coup but General Musharraf brushed off Commonwealth requests to visit him.
Axworthy said Sharief himself had rejected the idea of a phone call with the mission.
''It's a disappointment because one of the key questions was the condition of the people who were detained,'' Axworthy told reporters, saying the affair only highlighted his concerns about the legal protection afforded to prisoners in Pakistan.
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