Pakistan police battle protesters as crisis grows

Police fought running battles with stone-throwing anti-government protesters Sunday after authorities tried to detain opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, fanning a crisis that has alarmed the United States.

Peshawar, Pakistan
Vehicles use to transport NATO supplies to neighboring Afghanistan are set on fire in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Sunday, March 15, 2009. Police said suspected militants have attacked a transport terminal used to supply NATO troops in Afghanistan and burned dozens of military vehicles and shipping containers.

Police fought running battles with stone-throwing anti-government protesters Sunday after authorities tried to detain opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, fanning a crisis that has alarmed the United States.

Sharif is locked in a power struggle with Pakistan's president that threatens to paralyze politics in the nuclear-armed country and dilute its focus on tackling economic woes as well as Taliban militants operating along the Afghan border.

Hundreds of police surrounded the former prime minister's residence in the eastern city of Lahore before dawn on Sunday and detained him along with scores of his supporters, a party spokesman said.

Officers showed party officials an order placing Sharif and his politician brother Shahbaz under house arrest for three days, spokesman Pervaiz Rasheed said.

But Sharif later denounced the order as illegal and left the house in a convoy of vehicles packed with chanting, flag-waving supporters, headed for a downtown rally that had already turned violent.


"These are the decisive moments," Sharif told supporters before climbing into a car. "I tell every Pakistani youth that this is not the time to stay home; Pakistan is calling you to come and save me."

Rao Iftikhar, a senior government official, said authorities had decided to relax restrictions on Sharif so that he could address the rally and return home.

Lawyers and opposition party supporters had planned to gather near Lahore's main court complex before heading toward Islamabad to stage a mass sit-in front of Parliament, in defiance of a government ban.

To thwart them, authorities parked trucks across major roads on the edge of the city, and riot police took up positions outside the railway station and government buildings.

Still, several thousands flag-waving demonstrators pushed past police barricades to reach the courts.

Protesters pelted some of the hundreds of riot police ringing the area with rocks, triggering running clashes. An Associated Press reporter saw one officer led away with a head wound.

Police repeatedly fired tear gas, scattering the crowd, and beat several stragglers with batons, only for the demonstrators to return with fresh supplies or sticks and stones.

Mobs accompanying Sharif's swelling convoy smashed the windows of buses parked along the route. Others set fire to tires, sending plumes of black smoke into the blue sky over a usually bustling boulevard littered with stones and empty tear gas shells.


Shahbaz Sharif and a host of other protest leaders went underground to dodge detention orders. Iftikhar said they included the head of Pakistan's main Islamist party and cricketer star-turned-politician Imran Khan.

Television images showed police commandos wearing flak jackets and armed with assault rifles apparently searching for Shahbaz in Rawalpindi, just south of the capital.

Shahbaz, speaking to Geo television by phone, appealed to ordinary Pakistanis to come out onto the streets.

"(President Asif Ali) Zardari has put the nation into this deep crisis by breaking his promises," he said. "These fascist tactics cannot stop the masses who want justice."

Washington worries that the crisis is preventing the government from being an effective ally in the fight against insurgents in Afghanistan and is encouraging both sides to compromise.

Suspected militants attacked a transport terminal in northwestern Pakistan used to supply NATO troops in Afghanistan before dawn on Sunday and torched dozens of containers and military vehicles, police said.

The political turmoil began last month when the Supreme Court disqualified the Sharif brothers from elected office, over convictions dating back to an earlier chapter in Pakistan's turbulent political history.

Zardari compounded the crisis by dismissing the Sharifs' administration in Punjab, Pakistan's biggest and richest province, of which Lahore is the capital.


The brothers then threw their support behind plans by lawyers to stage an indefinite sit-in in Islamabad -- a move officials say would bring the government to a standstill and present a target to terrorists.

On Saturday, after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to both Zardari and Nawaz Sharif by telephone, the government announced it would file an appeal against the Supreme Court ruling in the coming days.

Sharif's party welcomed the move but stuck by its demand for a shake-up of the judiciary.

Zardari refuses to reinstate a group of independent-minded judges fired by Musharraf.

Many observers suspect Zardari fears the judges could challenge a pact signed by Musharraf that quashed long-standing corruption charges against him and his wife, slain former leader Benazir Bhutto.

Skeptics suspect Sharif of hoping to force early elections, from which he and Islamist parties would likely profit.

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