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Pakistan Protests Turn Violent in Lahore

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A Pakistani police officer throws a stone at demonstrators during clashes in Lahore, Pakistan, Sunday, 15 March 2009
A Pakistani police officer throws a stone at demonstrators during clashes in Lahore, Pakistan, Sunday, 15 March 2009

Pakistani police clashed in Lahore with protesters opposing the country's year-old government, in the most violent demonstrations yet in a five-day standoff. Authorities at first tried to disperse protesters and arrest top leaders, but as thousands poured into the downtown, police abandoned the confrontation. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is to address the nation Monday, and is expected to announce the reinstatement of the deposed Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry to end a political crisis.

Pakistani security forces largely succeeded in preventing mass demonstrations by political activists and lawyers earlier this week by blocking roads and arresting hundreds of protest leaders.

Police adopted similar tactics early Sunday in Lahore, surrounding the home of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and deploying scores of officers in riot gear throughout the city.

But Punjab Province is the political stronghold of Sharif's party and hundreds of demonstrators soon faced off against the police. The crowd pelted the security forces with stones and chanted slogans against President Asif Zardari. Police responded by firing tear gas and beating back protesters with batons.

While the clashes continued, Nawaz Sharif appeared before reporters outside his home, and decried government attempts to stop the demonstrations.

He says the government has turned this country into a police state and this is illegal.

Sharif then said he would defy a three-day house arrest imposed on him and his brother and journey out to meet his supporters.

As Sharif's convoy drove downtown, thousands of people packed into one of the city's main thoroughfares, cheering the slow moving procession and waving flags and banners. Police largely abandoned the main rally area, but officers continued to staff road blockades outside of the city.

Government officials defended the crackdown, saying they are not opposed to democratic rights, but merely want to maintain security. They said the proper place to debate the restoration of the judiciary is in Pakistan's parliament, not in the streets.

Newly appointed Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira held a news conference in Islamabad that most private Pakistani television networks did not broadcast live.

He says we do not want to have a mob that can turn violent, that is beyond the control of demonstration leaders. He says the government is committed to blocking demonstrations in downtown Islamabad because it cannot tolerate having protesters indefinitely shut down the city center for their political cause.

The thousands of protesters in Lahore are expected to journey 260 kilometers to the capital, Islamabad, for a large rally Monday.

Government officials say they are committed to prevent the protesters from reaching the downtown, where Pakistan's parliament and other government buildings and foreign embassies are located.

Police have laid out large metal shipping containers across most roads into the capital. The army has also committed to deploying troops to sensitive areas if asked by the government.

But political activists and lawyers are vowing they will not abandon their cause.

Senior lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan, who was placed under house arrest and then later released on Sunday, said the protests have grown into a nationwide movement to restore the judiciary.

"Now the Long March is for an indefinite period. Everyday there will be marches toward Islamabad. And the day the siege is removed, the day the containers are picked up, there will be hundreds of thousands, millions of people," Ahsan said.

The political gridlock is drawing concern that the protest over the restoration of senior judges could further weaken a government already struggling to deal with the country's faltering economy and a strengthening Taliban insurgency.

Suspected Taliban militants attacked a shipping depot outside the northwest city Peshawar. Gunmen used rockets and bombs to destroy at least 20 containers carrying supplies for military forces in Afghanistan.

The key transit route from Pakistan's ports to military bases in Afghanistan has been repeatedly attacked in the last year. U.S. and NATO officials are actively seeking alternative routes for shipping supplies.

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