Sharif reaches out to US, India after Pakistan win

RAIWIND, Pakistan (AFP) - Pakistan's incoming prime minister Nawaz Sharif reached out Monday to India and the United States, pledging to strengthen relations after his thumping victory in landmark elections.

Mr Sharif promised Pakistan's "full support" as the United States withdraws combat troops from Afghanistan and made overtures to nuclear rival India in a briefing with the foreign media at his family estate outside Lahore.

In an astonishing comeback 14 years after he was ousted by a military coup and briefly jailed, his centre-right Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) is projected to win 130 of the 272 directly elected seats in the national assembly.

"If there are concerns on either side I think we should address those concerns and strengthen this relationship," Mr Sharif told journalists, referring to Pakistan's difficult alliance with the US.

The US and Nato are due to withdraw most of their troops from the war against the Afghan Taleban by the end of 2014 and Pakistan will be a key transit point for shipping home equipment overland to the port at Karachi.

"We will extend full support to them and we will see everything goes smoothly," Mr Sharif said hours after President Barack Obama said Washington was ready to work with Islamabad "as equal partners".

US Secretary of State John Kerry has already called Mr Sharif to congratulate him and is hoping to visit Pakistan soon, once the new government is in place, State Department spokesman Jen Psaki told reporters.

Washington hopes to enhance cooperation with Islamabad on issues such as counter-terrorism, Ms Psaki said.

One thorn in the relationship is US drone strikes targeting Taleban and Al-Qaeda militants in the north-western tribal belt. The attacks are unpopular in Pakistan due to civilian casualties and seen as an infringement of sovereignty.

"We will sit with our American friends and we will certainly talk to them on this issue," Mr Sharif said.

He also said he would be "very happy" to invite India's Manmohan Singh to his swearing-in ceremony. The Indian leader on Sunday congratulated him and expressed hope for better relations.

But Pakistan's former ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani, who is close to the outgoing Pakistan People's Party (PPP), cast doubt on Mr Sharif's overtures.

"Will he really crack down on the hardline groups, many of whom campaigned for him and supported him in this election? I'm not so sure," Mr Haqqani told a press conference in Washington.

Mr Sharif's biggest challenges will also include fixing the shattered economy and ending an energy crisis.

And David Cameron, who spoke with Mr Sharif by telephone on Monday, praised his commitment to economic reform as the pair agreed to reinforce the "strong bond" between their two countries, according to the British Prime Minister's office.

Mr Sharif will likely need only the estimated 27 independents and his proportion of those seats reserved for women and minorities, to secure a majority in a country accustomed to long periods of military rule.

The PPP collapsed from 88 directly elected seats to 33, according to newspaper projections, but enough to emerge as the second largest party and likely go into opposition.

Cricket star Imran Khan appeared to have slipped into third place on 29 seats - still an astonishing achievement for a party which previously won only one seat in 2002.

His Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) will try to form a provincial government in the Taleban-hit north-west, but go into opposition at the national level.

PTI supporters carried out protests in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi on Sunday over alleged rigging in a handful of seats.

Ishaq Dar, who served in Sharif's second administration and again briefly in 2008, will again return as finance minister, a PML-N spokesman said.

In Karachi the benchmark index of top 100 shares rose 1.6 percent to 20,250.42 points in afternoon trade, surpassing the 20,000 mark for the first time.

Investors are hopeful of an economic revival under Sharif, whose privatisation policies earned him a good reputation among traders and industrialists during his two previous tenures in the 1990s.

High turnout, estimated at around 60 percent by the election commission, in Saturday's polls was a positive step for democracy even though the campaign was marred by violence and irregularities, an EU observer mission said.

Violence in the run-up to polls and on election day itself killed over 150 people, according to an AFP tally, as the Taleban declared the polls unIslamic.

After the election commission finalises the results, the president will have to summon the new parliament within three weeks.

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