Ousted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif boards the Lahore-bound flight. Image Credit: Reuters

Ousted Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam were arrested on Friday after flying back to the country to face lengthy prison sentences, in a high-stakes gamble to galvanise their beleaguered party ahead of a July 25 election.

Uniformed men escorted the Sharifs, who were sentenced in absentia on corruption charges last week, from their airplane after it touched down in the central city of Lahore at around 8:45pm (1645 GMT), a Reuters reporter on board said.

A spokesman for Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party confirmed they were arrested soon afterwards.

Local Geo TV said Sharif and his daughter were taken to another waiting aircraft to be flown out of Lahore, where more than 10,000 Sharif supporters were gathered to greet him.

Their return could shake up an election race marred by accusations Pakistan's powerful military is working behind the scenes to skew the contest in favour of ex-cricket hero Imran Khan, who describes Sharif as a "criminal" who deserves no support.

Clashes broke out Friday evening at the main highway entry point to Lahore between pro-Sharif protesters and police who had been deployed in their thousands, a Reuters witness said. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

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 centre in defiance of a citywide ban on public gatherings, according to a Reuters witness.

Nawaz Sharif decried the tactics ordered by the caretaker government that took over in June ahead of the general election, as Pakistan's constitution requires.

"What credibility will these elections have when the government is taking such a drastic action against our people and this crackdown is taking place all over the country?" he told Reuters at the airport in Abu Dhabi as he waited for a connecting flight to Lahore.

Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz boarding plane on flight to Lahore from Abu Dhabi airport
 

The flight took off from Abu Dhabi Airport after more than two hours of delay.

The Sharifs arrived at Abu Dhabi Airport from London at 7am local time on Friday. They were accompanied by around 50 people, including journalists.

During their stay at Abu Dhabi airport, Sharif and his daughter Maryam spent most of their time at the special first class lounge at the airport. Journalists and other supporters who accompanied them from London could not meet them during their stay at the airport. 

During his stay at the Abu Dhabi Airport, Sharif spoke to various television channels over the phone.  Sharif said that he know what lies ahead for him and his daughter on arrival in Lahore. "I know we will be arrested and I know I have been  handed a 10-year sentence and Maryam has been given seven years in jail, but we are returning because this country's fate needs to change."

"What is happening in this country today, what is happening in Lahore, raises questions regarding the elections. No other province is facing the situation we see in Lahore: hundreds of our party workers have been arrested; people are being pressured into switching loyalties," he said. 

Maryam has tweeted their photo sitting with Sharif in the lounge upon arrival at the Abu Dhabi airport.

A Pakistani diplomat in Abu Dhabi rubbished the rumours of their arrest by Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB) team in UAE. “The law does not allow them to arrest Sharif and his daughter here in the UAE,” he clarified.

In a video message, tweeted by Maryam, the former premier urged his followers to stand with him and "change the fate of the country".

Mayam took to Twitter to post pictures of the scenes in London before their departure. In one picture, the father and daughter are seen bidding a teary farewell to Kulsoom Nawaz, who is said to be comatose and admitted at a London hospital.

DISCORD WITH MILITARY

Sharif returned from Britain after an anti-corruption court handed him a 10-year jail term and sentenced his daughter and political heir to seven years in prison for failing to prove that money used to buy luxury flats in London in the 1990s was not ill-gotten.

Sharif alleges the military is aiding a "judicial witch-hunt" against him and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party. The party's past five years in power has been punctuated by the civil-military discord that has plagued Pakistan since its inception.

Sharif's return comes at a time of dwindling fortunes for his party, which a year ago was considered a run-away favourite to retain power.

Sharif was ordered jailed in a case stemming from 2016 Panama Papers revelations that showed they owned the apartments through off-shore companies. Maryam was convicted for concealing ownership of the apartments. They both deny wrongdoing.

BARRED FROM POLITICS

After the Supreme Court ousted Sharif last July, the courts barred him from heading the PML-N party he founded. His brother Shehbaz became PML-N's president, but Sharif remains the power behind the throne.

Since then, a host of his allies have been either disqualified by the courts, or face corruption cases. Many PML-N lawmakers have also defected to Khan's party.

PML-N has also been riven by internal divisions. Sections of the party oppose Sharif's combative approach against the army and fear it will turn off voters in a nation of 208 million people.

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.

- With input from agencies