India’s Neighbor Pakistan in a Tight Spot

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Opposition activists and Pakistani lawyers began their 1,500Km Long March led by Nawaz Sharif from Quetta and Karachi to Islamabad, reaching on March 16th. The protesters hoped to reach Islamabad to reinforce their demand for the reinstatement of the ex- Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, who had been earlier dismissed by the Pervez Mushraff government.

The cross-country march had people sitting on the roads and shouting “Zardari is a traitor”. Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari’s coalition government was trying its best to avoid a showdown.

The Opposition Leader, Nawaz Sahrif expressed his dismay at the ruling of the Supreme Court barring him as well as his brother from standing for elected office. He also voiced his protest against Zardari removing his party from power in the Punjab province and bringing it under central rule. He also alleged that the Zardari government was hatching a plan to kill him. A spokesman for the Zardari government said such utterances were political gimmickry and that the government had promised both the Sharif brothers full protection.

The Pakistani Interior Minister said that the Government was willing to sit with the protesters and find a solution. He also said that both, mr. Nawaz Sharif and Mr. Shabaz Sharif would be provided VVIP-type of security.

Another indication of possible compromise on the part of the Government with the protesters was the Prime Minister of Pakistan Yousaf Reza Gilani ‘s meeting with Pakistan’s army chief General Ashfaq Kayani expressing the government’s view that the central rule in Punjab should come to an end.

In Karachi, capital of Sindh province, the paramilitary soldiers as well as the police tried to stop the cars of the lawyers who were assembling at the High Court. The forces used batons to disperse a crowd consisting of the Islamist Jmaaat-e-Islami party which is allied with the protesting lawyers. Despite such action by the paramilitary forces, the lawyers continued to stream out of the High Court on foot to join the political activists. Subsequently, the protesters were allowed to board buses and get into cars and move out of the city. But they were stopped a t a toll gate at the outskirts where several leaders were arrested, which included Munir A Malik, a former president of Bar Association of the Supreme Court.

A similar group consisting of several hundreds of protesters also left from the south-western part of Quetta.

The United States appears to be more inclined towards Nawaz Sharif as it felt the protest was an expression of freedom of speech. The New Delhi government hoped that the issue would get resolved so that the Pakistani government could focus on terrorism.

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