Pakistan coup challenges U.S.; Regional unrest: Ouster of prime minister who sought peace with India is ominous.


JUST three weeks ago, the State Department warned Pakistan's army not to depose Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Washington called this support for the democratic process, not the man.

Now, the world community must respond to a repudiation of that warning after yesterday's apparent overthrow of Mr. Sharif's government in a military coup.

Mr. Sharif was denounced by many in Pakistan for visiting Washington in July and promising President Clinton to withdraw the Pakistan-backed insurgents fighting the Indian army in Kashmir. With India and Pakistan both testing nuclear weapons, that dispute threatened world peace.

The fighting stopped. But Pakistan's army command objected. Tensions grew. Despite recently reconfirming Gen. Perfaiz Musharraf as chief of the armed forces, Mr. Sharif announced his ouster yesterday, while the general was out of the country.

General Musharraf returned from Sri Lanka. The army seized airports and broadcast stations, put the prime minister under house arrest and "dismissed" the government.

Mr. Sharif was elected with a clear majority in 1997 and consolidated political power. He lost popularity for economic reasons linked to military escalation. Unrest is widespread over a sales tax increase ordered by the International Monetary Fund as a condition for a loan, which was needed after the IMF last year suspended earlier loans to protest Pakistan's nuclear weapons testing.

Last week, when India's Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was re-elected, he said his most pressing task was to restart peace talks with Pakistan; that is, with Mr. Sharif. Now he cannot.

President Clinton is scheduled to visit both countries early next year. If this coup succeeds, he should not.

The coup was mounted on behalf of bellicosity against India, though Pakistan would lose any war between the two. The coup repudiates President Clinton's peacemaking. And despite growing unhappiness with Mr. Sharif, no popular support exists for a return to military rule.

The world community should make every peaceful effort to persuade Pakistan's army to return to its barracks and restore the constitutional government.

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