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Pro-Sharif protests fuel political turmoil

Latest update : 2009-02-28

Protesters in Pakistan took to the streets for a third straight day, meeting tough resistance from police, following the Supreme Court's election ban of Nawaz Sharif that has pushed the country further into political turmoil.

AFP -Pakistani police fired tear gas and rounded up protesters in the capital Friday, with the nuclear-armed nation in turmoil since a court banned the top opposition leader from contesting elections.

The cabinet met to discuss the crisis and paramilitaries went on alert as thousands rallied, one day after the country marked the biggest protests yet against President Asif Ali Zardari, who took office last September.

Protesters are heeding a call from former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who leads the second largest party in Pakistan, to rise up after the Supreme Court Wednesday barred him and his brother from holding public office.

Zardari and Sharif are at loggerheads over the future of Pakistan, which has been teetering under the financial crisis, Islamist extremism and weak government but remains a key US ally in the fight against Taliban and Al-Qaeda militancy.

Analysts say Pakistan, reeling from extremist attacks that have killed more than 1,600 people in less than two years, can ill afford a showdown on top of international pressure to bring to justice those behind the Mumbai attacks.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's cabinet of ministers met in Islamabad and "declared the decision to disqualify the Sharif brothers as regrettable, but according to the law", an official statement said.

Chaired by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, the cabinet endorsed the the government's decision to suspend provincial parliament and agreed that "it was an option of the last resort".

The cabinet also decided to ask President Zardari to call session of the national assembly or lower house on Saturday "to move forward according to democratic norms".

In the capital Islamabad, police fired tear gas shells to disperse stone throwers and dozens of protesters shouting slogans against the government on a key road leading to the international airport, an AFP photographer said.

Riot police, armed with batons, charged into the mob, beating demonstrators and rounding up around 25 protesters into vans, the photographer said.

A senior government official said Friday's weekly cabinet meeting focused on "the situation arising after the Supreme Court decision".

In Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, ousted chief minister Shahbaz Sharif addressed more than 1,000 lawyers and activists while another 500 people rallied outside the regional parliament, an AFP reporter said.

Waving green party flags and portraits of Nawaz Sharif, around 100 provincial lawmakers also shouted "Go Zardari Go", an AFP photographer said.

Shahbaz, Nawaz Sharif's brother, lost his post in Punjab, the country's political heartland, where the government suspended the provincial parliament.

The protesters in Lahore also torched tyres.

Hundreds more protested in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, the southwestern city of Quetta and in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir,

Twice a former prime minister, 59-year-old Nawaz Sharif has tapped into widespread public discontent with Zardari, crowning his status as a key player in Pakistani politics since a seven-year exile in Saudi Arabia.

His conservative Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) demands the reinstatement of constitutional court judges sacked when former military ruler Pervez Musharraf declared emergency rule in 2007.

"On the request of the Punjab government we have deployed (put on alert) paramilitary forces to maintain law and order," interior ministry spokesman Shahidullah Baig told AFP.

"The situation is under control," he added.

Police said complaints had been filed against hundreds of PML-N workers and three local leaders in connection with unrest and property damage on Thursday.

Sharif's two terms as prime minister in the 1990s were marred by corruption claims and efforts to introduce Islamic sharia law.

The Supreme Court confirmed a lower court verdict in Lahore last June that he was ineligible to stand in a by-election due to past convictions.

Date created : 2009-02-28