74 people die in election violence ahead of Sharif's return

PML-N workers protest outside a police station

The deadliest attack in Pakistan's troubled election campaign has killed at least 70 people, including a candidate, as disgraced former prime minister Nawaz Sharif returned home to face arrest.

Sharif reportedly refused to sit in the vehicle of the Rangers to get to the airport terminal.

More than 100 people were arrested in his stronghold of Lahore where he has called on crowds to meet him when he touches down from London on Friday evening.

The two were convicted on July 6 in the Evenfield properties case linked to the Sharif family's ownership of four luxury flats in London.

Sahrif and Maryam were later sent on a special private plane bound for Islamabad International Airport.

They will be held in Rawalpindi's Adiala jail, where Captain Mohammad Safdar, Nawaz's son-in-law, is also imprisoned for corruption.

Sharif said that "draconian crackdown" on his supporters by the Punjab government shows that the authorities are scared of his appeal and are desperate to stop tens of thousands of people from reaching Lahore airport to welcome him and his daughter.

Mobile phone service had been cut off in mid-afternoon, as Sharif's brother, Shehbaz, led around 10,000 party supporters on a march towards the city center in defiance of a citywide ban on public gatherings, according to a Reuters witness. The pair, who were sentenced in absentia on corruption charges last week, were taken to custody soon after their arrival.

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There was barbed wire across some roads leading to Lahore airport on Friday and barricades at the roadside ready to close off main boulevards should crowds start to gather.

Sharif is returning to Pakistan one week after an anti-corruption court sentenced him to 10 years on corruption charges and sentenced his daughter to seven years in prison.

"A team of NAB is present at the Lahore airport and arrest the convicted Nawaz and Maryam from there", a spokesman of NAB, Nawzish Asim, told PTI.

"We have orders from our top command not to take action against the PML (N) rally participants", he said. I am aware that I have been sentenced to 10 years (in prison) and I will be taken to a jail cell straight away.

"The country is at a critical juncture right now".

The case pertains to the purchase of Avenfield apartments through offshore companies, the beneficial owner of which was Maryam. "But I want the Pakistani nationals to know that I am doing this for you", he said.

The kind of reception Sharif receives on the streets of Lahore will be viewed carefully in Pakistan, where political popularity is often measured by the size of rallies that politicians can attract. He remains popular, especially in Punjab, the most populous and electorally significant province. Many PML-N lawmakers have also defected to Khan's party. He also used the opportunity to again criticize Pakistan's powerful military, which has ruled the country directly or indirectly for most of its 71-year history, saying Pakistan now has a "state above the state".

Adding to the tension surrounding the upcoming poll, a suicide bomber hit an election rally of a regional party in southwestern Pakistan, killing 85 people.

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