However this time, Musharraf, who imposed emergency rule on November 3, is expected to let Sharif stay to lead his party in January's general election.

'Best moment'
 
"I am very happy to be back ... it is the best moment of my life," senior party aides quoted Sharif as saying as he arrived on an aeroplane provided by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

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"My return is not the result of any deal," he told reporters at the airport. "My life and death are for Pakistan.

"We will fully participate in national politics. We don't believe in the politics of vengeance."

Al Jazeera's Kamal Hyder in Lahore said there were noisy scenes outside the airport terminal.

"Everybody has been waiting for this day for some time," he said. "No one has been able to get close to Nawaz Sharif because of the crowds."

About 1,000 of Sharif's supporters found a way through tight security around the airport to enter the terminal building, waving the green flag of his party and shouting "Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif" and "Go, Musharraf, go!".

Workers decorated the streets with banners, posters and portraits, while crowds lined the route from the airport to the city. Loudspeakers on cars blared out music and people waved victory signs.

Yasin Butt, one of Sharif's supporters said: "The lion is returning, and when the lion roars, dictators and political turncoats disappear."

Supporters 'detained'

Sharif's party said about 1,800 of its supporters had been detained in a crackdown on Saturday night in the eastern Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital.
 
But Nisar Memon, the federal information minister, said the figure was an exaggeration.
 

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"There are no arrests as such," Memon said. "About 100 people have been confined so that they do not create any issues. We don't want the same mess as there was in Karachi."
 
Sharif had attempted to return home on September 10, but was sent back into exile within hours of landing.
 
This time, Musharraf has given his reluctant approval, according to a senior aide to the president.
 
Ahsan Iqbal, the information secretary for Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party, told Al Jazeera he believed the former prime minister would this time be allowed to remain in Pakistan.
 
"I think now there is no chance" that Sharif will be deported, he said.
 
"After he was deported [last time] there was a big backlash against his deportation."
 
Election boycott
 
Pakistan's political opposition is split over whether to boycott upcoming general elections.

Sharif indicated on Sunday that his party would demand a restoration of constitutional rule before it took part in the vote, but that any decision on whether to boycott would be taken in conjunction with other groups.

Thousands of supporters gathered at the
airport ahead of Sharif's arrival [AFP]
"These [emergency] conditions are not conducive to free and fair elections," he said. "I think the constitution of Pakistan should be restored, and there should be rule of law."

Raja Pervez Ashraf, secretary-general of the PPP party of Benazit Bhutto, another former prime minister, welcomed  Sharif's return and said it would help establish an open political atmosphere.

"There is already an understanding on one point, the restoration of democracy in this country," he said.

"We honestly feel that Pakistan needs democracy and a free and fair election is the only way out."
 
Sharif's return could further complicate the situation for Musharraf, who imposed a state of emergency three weeks ago saying that it was needed to tackle an increase in violent attacks.
 
But the president's opponents say that most of those targeted have been political opponents, lawyers and members of the media.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies