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Bhutto: Corruption charges remain

  • Story Highlights
  • Pakistani opposition leader says she doubts corruption charges are lifted
  • Benazir Bhutto says move has stalled talks on deal with President Musharraf
  • Bhutto says intends to end exile and return to Pakistan on October 18
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto has accused Islamabad of waging "a typical disinformation campaign" by saying it planned to lift longstanding corruption charges ahead of her planned return to Pakistan for upcoming elections.

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Benazir Bhutto says she plans to end her self-imposed exile and return to Pakistan on October 18.

"The charges have not been dropped against me," she told reporters Wednesday before a meeting of her Pakistan People's Party in London.

"This is just a typical disinformation campaign by the present regime."

She said the move has "totally stalled" talks on a power-sharing deal with Pakistan's President, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Speaking on CNN Tuesday, minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad said a majority of Pakistan's Cabinet ministers agreed that the charges against Bhutto should be lifted, allowing her to participate in parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year or early next year.

He said the decision came out of an emergency session called by Pakistan's Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and was expected to be finalized in the coming days.

Following the announcement, Bhutto said she was inundated with hundreds of congratulatory calls but had heard nothing from Islamabad about the reported decision.

"I asked the Pakistan People's party president to ring up the presidency and see if it was correct," she said. "They said it was not correct, even though it came from a Cabinet minister."

Bhutto said she still intends to end her self-imposed exile and return to Pakistan on October 18.

Former prime minister Bhutto is walking a fine line between supporting Musharraf's regime by negotiating a power-sharing deal with him, and criticizing what she called a "military dictatorship" that she blamed for rigging the last elections that followed Musharraf's 1999 coup.

She said the power-sharing talks are an effort "to save democracy" in Pakistan, but it has prompted criticism from other opposition leaders -- including her rival, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who questioned, "How can a democrat share power with a dictator?"

Sharif was swiftly sent back to Saudi Arabia last month when he tried to return to Pakistan after the top court lifted the exile order imposed against him following his ouster from power by Musharraf.

Bhutto had previously demanded that Musharraf step down from his army post before seeking a third term as president -- something that she conceded will not happen before Saturday when Pakistan's parliament and four provincial assemblies are scheduled to choose a president.

Musharraf has agreed to give up the army post after his expected re-election to the presidency, even naming a successor to head Pakistan's military on Tuesday.

Bhutto indicated that she is prepared to continue negotiating a power-sharing deal with Musharraf, which could mean her return to the prime minister post.

But she clarified her opposition party "is not in the business of saving military dictatorships."

"We want to save democracy and if General Musharraf's dictatorship can take the measures necessary to demonstrate that Pakistan is moving towards democracy, we have an understanding," Bhutto said. "But unfortunately there are (three) days to the presidential elections ... and we don't have that movement."

Led by the two candidates vying to replace Musharraf as president, Pakistan's opposition is petitioning the country's Supreme Court to block Saturday's vote on the grounds that it is unconstitutional for a military officer to seek the presidency within two years of holding rank.

In addition, they are arguing that Pakistan's constitution calls for an elected official to step down and wait a year before seeking a third term.

Eighty-five Pakistani opposition lawmakers submitted their resignation Tuesday to protest Musharraf's bid for another term, which would begin on November 15.

Over the weekend, Pakistan's election commission handed Musharraf a key victory, accepting his nomination to seek a third term. That decision prompted clashes between police and anti-Musharraf protesters.

If the vote goes ahead on Saturday, Musharraf is expected to secure the more than 50 votes in parliament needed to secure a new mandate.

Musharraf on Tuesday named Lt. Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani -- currently the head of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence agency -- to take his place as Pakistan's military chief.

Musharraf did not announce when Kiyani will take over as army chief. The Pakistani leader has only said that he will abandon the post sometime before he takes the oath of office again, if lawmakers approve a fresh mandate on Saturday. The new five-year term will start on November 15.

Arif Nizami, editor of the Pakistani daily, The Nation, said Kiyani is generally regarded as "in the same mold as General Musharraf."

"Musharraf has chosen a successor very carefully who will continue his policies and he will be as pro-western as General Musharraf is," Nizami told CNN International.

However, he pointed out that "once the army chief is there, he is his own man and you can't be 100 percent sure what kind of policies he'll pursue."

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Musharraf led the 1999 coup as Pakistan's army chief, a position he has been reluctant to relinquish because his real power base resides in the military, not with the Pakistani people.

Musharraf has seen his power erode since a failed effort earlier this year to fire the Supreme Court's chief justice. His administration is also struggling to contain a surge in Islamic militancy. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley in London and CNN's Syed Mohsin Naqvi in Lahore contributed to this report.

All About Benazir BhuttoNawaz SharifPervez MusharrafPakistan

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