A top U.S. envoy paid tribute to President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's government on Wednesday with comments that could take some heat off the military leader as he struggles to secure another term in office.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte praised Pakistan's anti-terrorism efforts and avoided overt criticism of Monday's deportation of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling.
The remarks come shortly after authorities barred another opposition leader, Imran Khan, from entering the country's biggest city, Karachi, which is dominated by a pro-Musharraf party. Khan said 300 of his supporters had been arrested in Karachi.
Musharraf is facing hostility at home over the expulsion of Sharif, a step which removed a key political rival who could have upset Musharraf's re-election plans.
Musharraf, who counts the U.S. as his key foreign backer, has also faced growing international pressure in recent months for his failure to curb Taliban and al-Qaida militants at the Afghan border.
"Significant additional Pakistani forces have been deployed to that region in the past year or so," Negroponte said at a news conference after talks with Pakistani officials in Islamabad.
"There is no doubt whatsoever of Pakistan's commitment to restoring and establishing security in that part of the country and more than doing its share in the war against terror," he said.
Calls Sharif issue 'internal'
Asked about Sharif's deportation, Negroponte described it as "an internal Pakistani political and legal matter and it's for the government and people of Pakistan to decide."
"We look forward to democratic elections being held in Pakistan quite shortly. We think it's important there be a smooth and democratic political transition," he said.
Sharif's party claims about 5,000 of its supporters were rounded up ahead of his abortive homecoming after seven years in exile.
In another case of authorities taking a tough line against government opponents, Khan was halted by police at Karachi airport on Wednesday and sent back to the capital.
The former cricket star was barred because his presence could cause unrest, city police chief Azher Farooqi said. More than a dozen Khan supporters, who had been chanting anti-Musharraf slogans, were detained, he said.
Riot police later stopped Khan and about two dozens supporters from marching to the Foreign Office, where Negroponte spoke.
"Musharraf has never had any legal authority but now he has lost all moral authority in Pakistan," Khan told reporters as his followers chanted anti-Musharraf slogans. "He's hanging in there through the help of the United States."
He accused Washington of trying to engineer a power-sharing deal between Musharraf and another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, to help the U.S.-allied general extend his rule.
Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or Movement for Justice, is small. But he is an outspoken critic of Musharraf and has accused the MQM of responsibility for violence at an opposition rally in Karachi on May 12 that killed about 40 people.
Arrived, sent back on Monday
Sharif, whose second spell in office ended with Musharraf's 1999 coup, flew into Islamabad Monday from London. Authorities halted him at the terminal and he left a few hours later for Saudi Arabia.
The manner of Sharif's departure is already the subject of a complaint to the Supreme Court from his supporters. The court ruled last month that Sharif had an "inalienable" right to return to his homeland.
It is unclear when it might rule on the latest case, but many commentators and legal experts are arguing that the government is guilty of contempt of court.
"No one is going to quite buy (the government's) argument," the Lahore-based Nation newspaper wrote in an editorial Wednesday. "For him to come to Pakistan only to be jetted to Saudi Arabia makes no sense. It is clear that he was sent against his will."
Sharif's removal could deepen Musharraf's unpopularity and reinforce impressions that he is an authoritarian leader. It could also undermine the legitimacy of legislative elections due by January.
The presidential vote is due between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15, and the election commission said Tuesday that the schedule will be announced within days.
Adding to the pressures on Musharraf is militant violence along the border with Afghanistan. Officials said that army helicopter gunships had killed an estimated 40 fighters in an attack on their positions in a tribal region in the northwest Wednesday.
Reports of the attack came hours after officials said militants had abducted 18 police officers from a checkpoint in the northwest, but the incidents did not appear to be related.