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Pakistan bans rallies, arrests 100s before march

 In this image released by Pakistan Muslim League (N),  opposition leader Nawaz Sharif addresses his supporters in Abbotabad, 160 kilometers (100 mile...
 Lawyers' leader Athar Minallah talks to media near a house of Pakistan's deposed chief justice, whose reinstatement is demanded by the opposition, a ...
 Pakistani supporters of Shahbaz Sharif, brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, react as his convoy arrives at Kamoki village, near Lahore, Pa...

Pakistan

In this image released by Pakistan Muslim League (N), opposition leader Nawaz Sharif addresses his supporters in Abbotabad, 160 kilometers (100 mile...

Pakistan

Lawyers' leader Athar Minallah talks to media near a house of Pakistan's deposed chief justice, whose reinstatement is demanded by the opposition, a ...

APTOPIX Pakistan

Pakistani supporters of Shahbaz Sharif, brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, react as his convoy arrives at Kamoki village, near Lahore, Pa...

Pakistan rounded up hundreds of opposition activists Wednesday and banned protests in two provinces hoping to thwart an anti-government march on the capital, saying it would not allow "the law of the jungle" to cause instability.
The crackdown threatened to undermine support for the year-old elected government, which the U.S. is counting on to battle Taliban and al-Qaida militants operating in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.
The growing political unrest also raised the specter of a possible military intervention in a nuclear-armed nation prone to army coups. It could put Washington in a prickly position if the civilian government _ which itself rose to power on the back of rallies and marches against former military ruler Pervez Musharraf _ keeps clamping down on dissidents.
As television channels beamed footage of police dragging activists into vans the day before the march was to begin, opposition party leaders and lawyers spearheading demonstrations vowed to press ahead.
"I cannot rest when Pakistan is being taken toward disastrous circumstances," opposition leader Nawaz Sharif told a crowd in North West Frontier Province. "We cannot compromise when all institutions are ruined and the system is on the verge of collapse."
Pakistan's lawyers are demanding that President Asif Ali Zardari fulfill a pledge to restore judges removed by Musharraf, who moved against many of the same activists in 2007.
Sharif, a former prime minister who briefly allied with Zardari during the campaign to force out Musharraf, supports the judges' restoration but also is furious over a Supreme Court decision barring him and his brother from elected office. After the ruling, the federal government dismissed the Punjab provincial administration led by Sharif's brother.
Sharif claims the ruling was politically motivated and has urged Pakistanis to join the protest march.
Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has cultivated ties with the U.S. and sought to rally Pakistanis behind the fight with Islamic extremists. Sharif is considered closer to Islamic parties and conservative factions less inclined to support the U.S. war effort.
Activists have promised to gather in cities around the country Thursday and then set out for the capital, Islamabad, where they plan a sit-in at the parliament building.
Seeking to disrupt the march, authorities announced a ban on public gatherings in both Punjab, the most populous province and Sharif's stronghold, and Sindh, home to Pakistan's largest city, Karachi.
Protesters have pledged a peaceful march, but Sharif has used words like "revolution" and other harsh terms in recent speeches, prompting the government to warn him against committing sedition.
Information Minister Sherry Rehman told reporters the rallies were banned to "avoid bloodshed in the streets." While acknowledging her party had staged similar rallies in the past, she insisted that "we never called to raise the flag of rebellion."
In a statement, her office said: "Pakistan's constitutional and democratically elected government cannot allow the rule of law to be replaced by the law of the jungle."
Analysts said the ruling party's actions undercut its democratic credentials.
"At the moment what we are witnessing ... indicates this government has shades of autocratic rule," Zaffar Abbas, a journalist and commentator, told Dawn News television.
Rao Iftikhar, the home secretary in Punjab, said about 300 political activists had been arrested there under a law allowing six months of detention.
A leader of the lawyers' movement, Aitzaz Ahsan, said he believed hundreds of his colleagues had been arrested, but he insist activists would not falter in their protest campaign.
"How long can the state resist?" Ahsan told a local TV station. "We will keep on knocking on the door of Islamabad relentlessly."
The ruling party has restored most of the judges fired by Musharraf, but a few, including a former Supreme Court chief justice, have not regained their seats.
Zardari is believed to fear those judges could move to limit his power or reopen corruption cases against him that were dropped by Musharraf when the former general was seeking to forge a political alliance before last year's elections. Some of Zardari's aides have suggested the ousted chief justice is too political.
Pakistanis are keeping a close watch on the military. Its reputation was battered by Musharraf's rule, but the army could feel compelled to intervene if political chaos persists.
With Zardari visiting Iran on Wednesday, the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, met with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, the premier's office said. It gave no details of their discussions.
In a speech late Wednesday, Gilani urged politicians to "show political maturity" and pledged to "sort out all the issues."
If the crackdown continues, American officials could find themselves in an awkward position of supporting an elected government that is resorting to moves reminiscent of Musharraf's tough tactics against opponents.
Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup that ousted Sharif, allied himself with Washington after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the U.S., and the Bush administration continued to back him even as he grew increasingly unpopular.
That deepened anti-American sentiments in Pakistan, a nation of 170 million whose cooperation is considered critical by the Obama administration in the war against the Taliban.
State Department spokesman Robert Wood avoided direct criticism of the Pakistani government on Wednesday, but said the U.S. supported "freedom of speech, of expression, of assembly in Pakistan."
"What we think is important is that the various parties try to resolve their differences within the political system of Pakistan in accordance with its constitution _ respect for, you know, the rule of law," he said.
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Associated Press writers Ashraf Khan in Karachi, Munir Ahmad and Zarar Khan in Islamabad, Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Babar Dogar in Lahore and Desmond Butler in Washington contributed to this report.


Updated : 2020-11-30 20:12 GMT+08:00