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Musharraf Puts Off China Visit Amid Talks On Ouster

Pervez Musharraf
ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has put off a visit to China, an official said, as opponents in the coalition government consulted over his possible impeachment.

"We have been told that the president's visit to China has been cancelled," said the official, who had been due to fly with Musharraf on August 6 to attend opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics and meet with the Chinese leadership.

Pakistan treasures its close relationship with China as it provides a regional counterweight to old rival India. It is highly unusual for a Pakistani leader to call off a visit at such short notice.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Sadiq confirmed the visit had been called off, although he later said there could be a re-think. The president's spokesman was unavailable for comment.

A source close to Musharraf said the president could leave for Beijing once he learnt the outcome of crucial talks on August 6 between leaders of the civilian coalition in Islamabad.

Asif Ali Zardari, the head of the ruling alliance, was meeting with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resolve their differences over the thorny issues of Musharraf's impeachment and restoration of Supreme Court judges who were dismissed by the president last November during a brief period of emergency rule.

A spokesman for Zardari's Pakistan People's Party told reporters after a first round of talks on August 5 that the pair had reached a consensus on major issues.

Musharraf, a U.S. ally who came to power as a general in a 1999 coup, has become overwhelmingly unpopular.

His allies were defeated in an election in February that resulted in a civilian coalition government led by the party of the late Benazir Bhutto, a two-time prime minister who was assassinated while campaigning last December.

Pressure To Quit

Despite the loss of parliamentary support, Musharraf has resisted pressure to quit, and has insisted that he was willing to work with the new civilian government.

Musharraf has repeatedly said he will not use presidential powers to dismiss the parliament, but Pakistani political circles are rife with speculation that he is maneuvering toward this scenario on grounds that the four-month-old civilian government has proved inept.

Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf overthrew, wants wheels set in motion to impeach the embattled president, but Zardari has until now warded off a confrontation with Musharraf, who neither the army nor the United States wants to see humiliated.

Sharif withdrew his party's ministers from Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's cabinet in May, but did not go as far as pulling out of the coalition completely.

The intense uncertainty has taken a toll on Pakistani markets, with the main share index at its weakest in nearly 23 months and the rupee headed back towards all-time lows posted in early July.

Investors have harbored doubts over whether the civilian coalition can handle multiple crises, including widening trade and fiscal deficits, inflation at a three-decade high, acute power outages, food and fuel shortages, and rising militancy across the northwest.