Political violence in Karachi appears to have derailled any possibility of a deal between President Musharaff of Pakistan and one of his most powerful pro-democracy rivals, Ms Benazir Bhutto of the PPP. Musharaff has stated that neither Bhutto nor the other main pro-democracy leader Nawaz Sharif will be allowed to return from exile for the elections this year. But both leaders say they will return anyway, paving the way for a confrontation framed as dictatorship vs. democracy.
"About their return before elections, no, there is nobody returning before elections," he told the private Aaj news channel.The chances are very high that the elections will see far more of the kind of violence that exploded in Karachi last weekend, when pro-Musharaff gunmen attacked supporters of the sacked Pakistani Chief Justice. The Chief Justice's case has become a rallying point for pro-democracy groups and for thise disaffected with Mushraff's rule and most of those killed by the gunmen from a Mushraff-supporting party belonged to Bhutto's PPP.
His remarks came after weeks of growing protests against his rule, initially sparked by his suspension of the country's chief justice.
The president faces re-election by parliament and the country's provincial assemblies to stay in office when his current term runs out.
Correspondents say he wants to do so before the general elections, in which the PPP is expected to play a pivotal role.
Ms Bhutto has also said President Musharraf must keep a promise to stand down as army chief by the end of the year before a deal can be reached.
Her party dismissed President Musharraf's remarks as the "dying kicks of a vanishing dictator" and vowed she would return for the elections.
"General Musharraf himself is about to go, his days as the usurper president are over and it is just a matter of time before he has to quit," PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar told the AFP news agency.
A spokesman for the faction of the Pakistan Muslim League which Mr Sharif leads also insisted he would return to Pakistan this year.
"There is no provision in the constitution which gives power to one man to bar a fellow citizen from entering the country," Raja Zafarul Haq told AFP.
Such violence, cast in such obvious terms, will also create far more intense pressure for the U.S. government to cease its support for the dictator, who was been equivocal (at best) in his support for operations against Taliban and Al Qaida terrorists who seek safe haven in Pakistan. NATO and other intelligence agencies say that Mushraff's ISI intelligence agency actively aids these and other Islamist terror groups.