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18 April 2024

Pakistan's Musharraf seeks new European backing

By Agencies

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf starts a four-nation tour of Europe on Sunday in which he will seek to bolster his credibility with the West after months of chaos, officials and analysts said.

Musharraf's visits to Britain, France, Belgium and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, come amid fears from his foreign allies that the nuclear-armed Islamic republic is spinning towards crisis.

He is likely to face thorny questions over his commitment to fighting terrorism after the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and about Pakistan's slow progress to democratic elections set for February 18.

"Musharraf is trying to give the impression to leaders in Europe that everything is fine in his country and things are not as bad as they think," analyst and retired general Talat Masood told AFP.

"He also wants to show the people of Pakistan that he has a great stature and that internationally he continues to be indispensable."

Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999 and joined the US-led "war on terror" two years later, gave up his military role in November in what he said was a key step to restoring the country to full democracy.

But he has faced opposition at home and pressure from the West to get his country in order amid a wave of suicide bombings that has killed nearly 900 people in the last year, including Bhutto on December 27.

There is particular concern in Washington and European capitals about the safety of Pakistan's estimated 50 nuclear warheads if the country unravels.

A senior Pakistani government official said that Musharraf was keen to show the West during his visit that his resolve was still strong.

"The aim is to reassure his western audience he will not budge from commitment to fighting terrorism and promoting democracy," the official said on condition of anonymity.

Musharraf will be in Brussels on Sunday and Monday where he will meet leaders of the European Union, foreign office spokesman Mohammad Sadiq told AFP.

The president will also address the European parliament's foreign affairs committee and hold talks with Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt on promoting cooperation in trade and defence.

Musharraf will arrive in Paris on January 21 on a two-day visit to France for talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Sadiq said.

He will also meet business leaders and representatives of a French think tank before heading for Davos to attend the World Economic Forum meeting, being held from January 23 to 25.

Musharraf is to have several bilateral meetings with delegates in Davos, including US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai and Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, Sadiq said.

Musharraf will arrive in Britain on January 26 on the last leg of his week-long trip, during which he will meet Prime Minister Gordon Brown and address business leaders and members of the Pakistani community, he added.

Britain in particular maintains close ties with Pakistan and has sent a team of detectives from Scotland Yard to help investigate the murder of two-time former premier Bhutto.

The country's Foreign Minister, David Miliband, has also made several phone calls reaching out to another opposition leader and ex-PM, Nawaz Sharif, in a bid to promote political reconciliation within Pakistan.

Analyst Masood said Musharraf nevertheless would "get flak for what he is doing at home".

"He will face questions on democracy in Pakistan while he is in Europe. I think they will ask him to do more and to ensure free, fair and transparent elections," he said.

"He will also be questioned on the 'war against terrorism' after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the investigations into the tragedy," he added.

"He would like to let the European community know that he needs their help in fighting terrorism, knowing well that domestically his popularity has dipped." (AFP)