World and Nation

Pakistani President Remains as Army Chief Despite False Claims

Pakistani government officials denied Thursday that the country’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, had agreed to resign as army chief before presidential elections, contradicting statements a day earlier by Benazir Bhutto, an exiled former prime minister.

A presidential spokesman, Rashid Qureshi, said that no decision had been made in negotiations between the sides in London and that no presidential announcement was imminent. “It is an ongoing dialogue,” he said. “If there is an announcement, I will be the first to tell you.”

Bhutto, who has been in talks with aides to Musharraf for months to work out a power-sharing deal, said Wednesday that he had agreed to a crucial concession: giving up the post of army chief of staff before standing for re-election. The same day, Pakistan’s minister of railways, Sheik Rashid Ahmed, said that the issue “had been settled” in a deal that was “80 percent done.”

But on Thursday, government officials pushed back, denying that a deal had been made and accusing Bhutto of grandstanding.

Qureshi said that Musharraf had until Nov. 15, when his current term ends, to decide whether he would give up one of his posts, president or chief of army staff.

“He has not given a date,” Qureshi said in a telephone interview. “He wants to keep that to himself.” He said that the president would not be pressured into making any decision and that the railways minister had been speaking personally, not officially.

The minister of state for information, Tariq Azim Khan said that the president could remain as army chief until Dec. 31, which is when a constitutional amendment allowing him to retain the dual roles expires. And he quoted Musharraf as saying, “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”

The power-sharing deal under negotiation would allow Bhutto to return from self-imposed exile and run for prime minister, and would allow Musharraf to run for another term as president. The United States supports the deal as a way to keep an ally in the presidency and shore up his domestic support.

But each side needs serious concessions from the other.

Bhutto wants corruption cases against her dropped and a ban on prime ministers running for a third term lifted. She was elected in 1988 and 1993, but both terms were cut short amid accusations of corruption.

Musharraf, severely weakened by months of protests over his four-month suspension of the popular Supreme Court justice, faces challenges on the constitutionality of his running again and holding the dual posts of army chief and president.

He expects a new political challenge from the powerful former prime minister he ousted in a bloodless 1999 coup, Nawaz Sharif, who was cleared by the Supreme Court last week to return from exile. From Bhutto, the general needs support in Parliament, where her Pakistan People’s Party is strong.

But there is some strong opposition within the governing party, the Pakistan Muslim League, which backs him, to making a deal with Bhutto, because of fears that, fueled by her return, her party could make big gains in Parliamentary elections.