A convoy of thousands of protesters was last night rumbling |towards Pakistan’s capital after a fierce police crackdown failed to end a perilous confrontation |between the government and its political opponents.
After a day of running battles between black-suited lawyers and police who fired tear-gas and plastic bullets in the country’s second-largest city, protesters dragged aside police barricades and made their way on to the |famous Grand Trunk road leading to Islamabad. Awaiting them in the locked-down capital were thousands of troops and police.
In scenes that added to Pakistan’s turmoil and deepened |international concern about the country’s future, police in Lahore had tried to break up thousands of demonstrators gathered in the city centre. The authorities also tried to place opposition leader Nawaz Sharif under house arrest, a move he defied by leaving his residence to try to address the demonstrators.
“You have seen that the entire country has been turned into a |police state,” Mr Sharif said, standing on the steps of his home.
“They have blocked all roads, they have used all sorts of unlawful tactics. These are the decisive moments. I tell every Pakistani youth that this is not the time to stay home; Pakistan is calling you to come and save me.”
President Asif Ali Zardari’s |increasingly unpopular government is desperate to prevent thousands of lawyers staging a “long march” to Islamabad where they today hope to hold a sit-in front of the country’s parliament building, demanding the reinstatement of a chief justice ousted by former president Pervez Musharraf.
Mr Zardari — opposed to the |reinstatement because of concerns that he could again open corruption charges against him — has ordered the arrest of thousands of lawyers and blocked the main roads to Islamabad. But the demonstrators, Mr Sharif among them, vowed to press on as far as they could towards the capital. “It doesn’t matter if we get all the way,” said Bushra Ahsan, wife of Aitzaz Ahsan, one of the lawyers’ senior leaders. “We will try.”
The clashes echoed those in late 2007 when Mr Musharraf declared a state of emergency and launched a fierce crackdown on his political opponents. Among those being targeted at the time were members of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), who now control the government.
Many of those yesterday being dragged away by police and staggering blindly through choking tear gas were furious that the people they marched with just 18 months ago were now deploying the same authoritarian tactics used by the military dictatorship.
Said Kamran Shafi, a former aide to the President’s late wife, Benazir Bhutto, and one of those waving placards: “Mr Zardari has become a civilian dictator.”