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Police arrest protesters, ban rally in 2 Pakistan regions

PAKISTAN arrested hundreds of opposition activists yesterday and banned protests in two regions ahead of a planned rally outside the parliament that could weaken the rule of the country's government.

The crackdown by police and intelligence agencies stands to damage the credentials of the ruling party of President Asif Ali Zardari and stoke further anger at the government's year-old rule.

The opposition, along with lawyers spearheading the planned protest, vowed to press on.

"I cannot rest when Pakistan is being taken toward disastrous circumstances," Nawaz Sharif, the head of the largest opposition party, told several thousands supporters at a rally in the North West Frontier Province. "We cannot compromise when all institutions are ruined and the system is on the verge of collapse."

The upheaval comes as Pakistan is grappling to contain surging violence and fix the economy.

It could lead to a political deadlock and even some form of intervention by the country's powerful military, which has seized power in the past following civilian rule.

Pakistani lawyers, Sharif's party and two other smaller groupings are demanding that Zardari fulfill a pledge to restore a group of judges fired by former President Pervez Musharraf in 2007.

Zardari is refusing to do so, apparently fearing that they could try to limit his power or reopen corruption cases against him.

Last month, the Supreme Court banned Sharif and his brother from elected office, enraging their followers and energizing the protest movement further.

The protesters have vowed to gather in cities around the country today, before leaving for the capital, Islamabad, where they plan to stage a sit-in at the parliament building until their demands are met.

But public gatherings were banned in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province and Sharif's stronghold, and Sindh, home to the country's largest city of Karachi, the home secretaries in both provinces said.

Rao Iftikhar, the home secretary in Punjab, said that around 300 political activists had been arrested under a law that allows for six months imprisonment.

Aitzaz Ahsan, a lawyer's-movement leader, said that he believed "hundreds" of lawyers had been arrested.


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