Pakistan impedes lawyers’ anti-government march

ISLAMABAD - Pakistani authorities Friday impeded a cross-country lawyers’ rally by blocking a protest convoy from travelling to the capital city Islamabad to join a planned sit-in against the faltering year-old government.

Police stopped Ali Ahmed Kurd, a key leader of the protesting lawyers, and scores of his supporters early Friday from entering the southern Sindh province from where the group planned to travel to the eastern town of Lahore before marching on the capital.

After marching overnight, Kurd and his supporters returned to Quetta, the capital of southwestern Balochistan province, with plans to move directly to Islamabad.

‘We will reach Lahore and Islamabad by taking other routes,’ Kurd told reporters.

He told demonstrators to travel alone or in small groups to avoid police enforcing a ban on political rallies and public gatherings.

The ban was imposed in three of the country’s four provinces in an attempt to forestall the open-ended sit-in demonstrators have planned to hold outside the parliament building on Monday.

The protesting lawyers backed by opposition parties and civil society group are pressing Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to fulfil his promise to reinstate the independent-minded top judge, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was sacked in November 2007 by then-ruler Pervez Musharraf.

Law-enforcement agencies have already taken more than 750 people into custody, with most of the arrests occurring in the eastern province of Punjab, officials said.

Punjab politics is dominated by the party of the popular opposition leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Sharif has thrown his weight behind the protest campaign after a controversial court verdict last month barred him and his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, from holding public office.

The political turmoil in Pakistan, which is battling against growing militancy and a financial meltdown, has alarmed Western coalition partners in the fight against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants in Afghanistan.

Top diplomats from the US and Britain, as well as several other countries, have attempted to defuse the tensions between Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party and Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party.

US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke Thursday held a teleconference with Zardari that was joined by US Ambassador Anne W Patterson.

Holbrooke earlier telephoned Sharif while Patterson met with the opposition leader in Lahore to discuss the potentially explosive situation.

‘We want to see the situation dealt with in accordance with the rule of law in Pakistan and that violence be avoided and that any impediments to peaceful and democratic activities not be put in place,’ a US State Department statement said Thursday.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband had also asked Zardari to make prompt efforts to avert political and security crises, according to media reports.


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