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Pakistan party mulls leaving coalition

ISLAMABAD, August 25 – Pakistan’s fragile ruling coalition was at risk of being pulled apart on Monday, setting the stage for a major political showdown two weeks before the country’s lawmakers choose a new president.

Former premier Nawaz Sharif, head of the second-largest party in the coalition, had laid down a Monday deadline for the reinstatement of judges sacked by Pervez Musharraf, who resigned as president last week.

The main coalition party, the Pakistan People’s Party, has refused to give a timeframe, despite Sharif’s threat to pull out of the coalition if judges were not restored by Monday.

Sharif’s party is meeting on Monday afternoon in Islamabad to decide whether to stay in the four-party coalition after the PPP’s refusal, party officials said.

"They (PPP) have unilaterally ended the basis of the coalition," Sharif’s spokesman Ahsan Iqbal said, adding that he had joined hands with the PPP after assurances that the judges would be restored.

"Nawaz Sharif will announce the future course of action at 6.00 pm (1200 GMT) after holding consultations with the party," Iqbal said.

If Sharif pulls out of the coalition, the PPP would still have enough allies in parliament to hold the government together, but analysts say that governing in the long term would be difficult with Sharif in opposition.

The political bickering has also underlined concerns for Pakistan’s stability as the country tries to keep a lid on Islamic militants from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

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Nearly 100 people were killed in suicide bombings last week alone. Pakistani Taliban say the bombings were carried out in response to a military campaign against them, and have threatened more attacks to come.

The government said on Monday that it had banned the main Taliban militant umbrella group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and frozen its bank accounts and assets in Pakistan.

Musharraf sacked the judges last year to ensure there would be no legal challenges to his re-election as president while holding the dual role as head of Pakistan’s powerful military.

Their sacking set off a wave of public protests, however, and eventually led to the coalition threatening to impeach Musharraf before he stepped down on Monday last week.

Now critics say the PPP may not want to restore the judges either, because of fears that they could overturn the amnesty on corruption charges that allowed PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari to return to the country last year.

Zardari took over the party after his wife Benazir Bhutto, another former premier was assassinated in December, and he is likely to be selected by lawmakers on September 6 as the new president.

But Sharif’s party could split from the coalition and then run another candidate for the presidency if the two sides do not find common ground on the judges. Nomination papers are due to be filed by Tuesday.

A resolution on the reinstatement of the 60 judges, who include the independent-minded former chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, would require the PPP’s support to pass in parliament.

The political battle has come with the government trying to prosecute a military crackdown on militants in a troubled tribal region near the Afghan border.

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The militants in the Bajaur region offered a unilateral ceasefire on Sunday, but the offer was rejected by the government

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