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Nov 26, 2007 at 08:26am IST

Happy homecoming for Sharif after 7 years

New Delhi: It was a happy homecoming for former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif, after seven years in exile. Sharif returned on Sunday to his home, his people and a big Punjabi welcome.

Thousands turned out to welcome their hero home despite government pleas to keep numbers down because of security worries. Within minutes, the man known as the Lion of Lahore made it clear his party would contest elections calling for a level playing field.

“I will contest elections. We don't believe free and fair elections can be held,” said Sharif.

TWIST IN THE TALE: Sharif returns a little over a month after archrival, Benazir Bhutto.

Sharif returns a little over a month after arch rival, Benazir Bhutto. Her welcome home had been marred by suicide bomb attacks that killed 139 people and police say they took no chances this time, putting more than 7,000 security personnel on Lahore's streets.

Bhutto and Sharif had joined forces against the General in London. Analysts say the equation won't be that easy in Lahore, but politicians say there's always a way out.

"All political parties can join hands to form a strategy to restore democracy," says Wajid Shamshul Hasan.

Sharif has come back home once before in September, when he was deported to Saudi Arabia within hours of arriving. This time things were different. Flying on a special plane lent by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, Sharif returned, some say, after striking a deal with Musharraf. But if Sharif stands by what he had said earlier.

When asked he could imagine being prime minister and Musharraf being president, Sharif snubbed the idea.