Pakistani protesters clash with police in Lahore
Sun Mar 15, 2009 11:19am EDT
Sharif under house arrest
By Zeeshan Haider
LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Anti-government protesters fought street battles with police in the Pakistani city of Lahore on Sunday in clashes that deepened concern about the deteriorating situation in the country.
Former prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif said the government had turned the country into a police state as he defied government attempts to thwart the so-called long march protest and called supporters on to the streets.
"You have seen that the entire country has been turned into a police state. They have blocked all roads, they have used all sorts of unlawful tactics," Sharif told a throng of reporters at the front step of his Lahore home.
Hundreds of protesters, many of them members of the Jamaat-e-Islami religious party, hurled stones at police outside the High Court in Lahore. Several vehicles were torched.
Police responded with tear gas and baton charges.
Later thousands of opposition activists flooded the area despite a government ban on rallies and the police retreated.
The protest campaign by anti-government lawyers and opposition parties threatens to bring more turmoil to Pakistan as the government struggles to combat Islamist militants and revive a flagging economy.
If the political crisis gets out of hand, the army could intervene though most analysts say a military coup is unlikely.
The United States is worried the crisis is a distraction from Pakistan's efforts to eliminate Taliban and al Qaeda enclaves on the Afghan border, vital to U.S. plans to stabilize Afghanistan and defeat al Qaeda.
Earlier, Sharif's party said he had been ordered detained at his home for three days.
Police in riot gear sealed off Sharif's house with road blocks but government officials denied he had been placed under house arrest. One official said Sharif had been placed under "protective security" for three days.
Police have detained hundreds of lawyers and opposition activists in a crackdown to foil the nationwide protest that is due to climax with a sit-in outside parliament in Islamabad on Monday. The government has put troops on alert.
ROAD BLOCKS AHEAD
Sharif later set off for Islamabad in a convoy of about 200 vehicles.
"It's now a matter of the future of Pakistani nation and coming generations. How can we abandon our mission halfway?" he told Geo TV by telephone from his car.
Police sealed off a lawyers' association office in Rawalpindi where lawyers were due to protest, and placed shipping containers on roads to block the way to Islamabad.
The lawyers' main demand is the reinstatement of former Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was dismissed in 2007 by then president and army chief Pervez Musharraf.
President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, has refused to reinstate the judge, seeing him as a threat to his own position.
But despite the crackdown and the violence, efforts to find a solution have been going on behind the scenes with the backing of the United States and other allies.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has been promoting a compromise involving concessions to Sharif and the judiciary.
The government said on Saturday it would seek a review of a Supreme Court ruling last month that barred Sharif and his brother from elected office.
An official in Zardari's party said on Saturday the president was refusing to cave in to pressure from Sharif, who was trying to overturn an election mandate by mob rule.
(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider, Simon Cameron-Moore, Mubasher Bukhari and Augustine Anthony; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Angus MacSwan)