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Close aides to Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and the chief of the country’s intelligence agency are in London to hold talks with Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, the president’s two main political opponents, generally reliable Pakistani newspapers reported Sunday.

The high-level contacts with the two opposition leaders, who are planning to return to Pakistan to take part in elections, come at a time when government officials have said they are starting a dialogue with all the main political parties to seek “national reconciliation” and to ensure a smooth expansion of democracy.

Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, plans to run for re-election to a five-year term before Oct. 15 in a vote of the national and provincial assemblies. He faces an uphill task in securing a third term while still serving as army chief of staff.

The News, one of the most widely read newspapers in the country, reported that the chief of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Lt. Gen. Ashfaq Pervaiz Kiyani, and the chief of staff to Musharraf, Lt. Gen. Hamid Javaid, had arrived in London to hold talks with Sharif, a former prime minister, who was ousted in the 1999 coup. He has emerged as a major challenger to Musharraf after a Supreme Court ruling last week that said he should not be hindered from returning from exile.

Tariq Aziz, a top civilian aide to Musharraf, is also in London to work on an agreement with Bhutto, another former prime minister, The Daily Times, a leading daily from Lahore, reported. Bhutto has been in negotiations with Musharraf and his aides for months over a power-sharing deal that would allow him to continue for another term as a civilian president and allow her to return to take part in elections, freed of legal impediments.

Contacts between government officials and top opposition figures have gained momentum as the date for the presidential election approaches, and the obstacles to Musharraf staying in office have piled up. In particular, the recently reinstated chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who fought a five-month battle against his dismissal by Musharraf, has shown an aggressive attitude toward government officials who are seen as showing disregard for the Constitution and the law.

Musharraf, who holds both the presidency and the top military job, intends to resign his military post after the presidential elections, senior government officials have said in recent days. However, he would still need the support of opposition parties to overcome constitutional obstacles to his re-election.

“President Musharraf is negotiating after losing ground politically,” The Daily Times observed in its editorial Sunday, saying that his position was growing weaker vis-a-vis the main opposition parties. “President Musharraf is trying to talk to everyone he thinks is still vulnerable, and that includes Maulana Fazalur Rehman,” the leader of a coalition of religious parties, the editorial said. “That is why both Sharif and Bhutto seem to be hesitating about coming to Pakistan.”