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Pakistan Army on Standby Ahead of Islamabad Protest Rally

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Pakistani police officers in riot gears arrive outside the city court where lawyers are gathered to protest against arrests of their colleagues in Karachi, 14 Mar 2009
Pakistani police officers in riot gears arrive outside the city court where lawyers are gathered to protest against arrests of their colleagues in Karachi, 14 Mar 2009

Pakistan's army says it has placed soldiers on standby before Monday's expected protest rally in the capital. The move allows government officials to call in troops if they are needed to ensure security.

The Pakistani government has made extensive preparations to prevent Monday's protest rally in downtown Islamabad. Paramilitary troops have been activated to bolster the city's police force and new roadblocks are in place to shut down major roads.

On Saturday, the interior minister formally asked Pakistan's army to prepare to intervene in case the security forces are overwhelmed.

Army Spokesman Athar Abbas tells VOA that the military will deploy an unspecified number of troops if asked by the government. The announcement appears to indicate that Pakistan's powerful military, which has intervened in political crises before, is backing the government in the current standoff.

The head of the Interior Ministry, Rehman Malik, told reporters Saturday the additional troops will be pulled back from some areas of western Pakistan, where they have been fighting against Taliban militants.

"Today I have to withdraw the forces from Hangu, DI Khan, Swat and most of the bordering area," said Malik. "Unfortunately this is not favorable to the war we are fighting against the militants and terrorists."

Government officials and opposition supporters have publicly sparred in recent days over whether the protests are unnecessarily distracting Pakistan from its battle against militants. The government insists bans on rallies and hundreds of arrests have been necessary to prevent large gatherings that intelligence agencies believe will be attacked.

Supporters of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif party and lawyers take part in anti-government rally in Multan, Pakistan, 14 Mar 2009
Supporters of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif party and lawyers take part in anti-government rally in Multan, Pakistan, 14 Mar 2009

Officials have urged opposition leaders to move Monday's rally to a field outside of Islamabad's center to improve security. They have also offered to hold talks to resolve the crisis.

But lawyers and political activists have rejected talks and called the warnings government intimidation. They insist they will overcome the security cordon and converge on Islamabad's downtown.

Protesters want the president to reinstate the country's former supreme court chief justice, which they say is necessary to restore the judiciary's independence.

There have been signs the standoff has shaken the Pakistan People's Party, which controls the largest number of seats in parliament and whose members hold most of the influential political offices, including president and prime minister.

On Saturday, the government's information minister, Sherry Rehman, resigned after a private television network complained the government blocked its broadcast.

Presidential spokesman Faratullah Babar denied that the Geo TV channel, which has been critical of President Asif Zardari and the government crackdown, had been ordered off the air Friday.

"We will look into what has actually happened. But I can assure you that no instructions have been issued by Mr. Zardari or the government to block any private television channels," he said.

The channel appeared to be back on Saturday. The president's office released no explanation for Sherry Rehman's resignation, but said another cabinet member has taken over her duties.

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