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More arrests ahead of rally in Pakistan

Authorities arrested at least 60 more political activists as they extended a nationwide crackdown on Thursday aimed at thwarting plans to head to Pakistan's capital from several cities and surround the country's parliament.

world Updated: Mar 12, 2009 12:29 IST

Authorities arrested at least 60 more political activists as they extended a nationwide crackdown on Thursday aimed at thwarting plans to head to Pakistan's capital from several cities and surround the country's parliament.

The arrests took place in the southern city of Karachi overnight and outside the high court building on Thursday morning, where scuffles briefly broke out between police and protesters, witnesses and city police chief Waseem Ahmad said.

Pakistan's largest opposition party and two other smaller groupings have joined forces with lawyers demanding an independent judiciary in a protest movement that threatens to weaken the year-old elected government, which the US is counting on to battle Taliban and al-Qaida militants operating in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.

Police rounded up around 300 political activists on Wednesday from cities around the country and banned rallies in two provinces, including Sindh where Karachi is located. Media reports said the government planned to blockade the capital from the weekend to stop protesters entering.

"Our long march will go ahead according to the schedule," said Naeem Qureshi, a prominent lawyer in Karachi, referring to the protest. He and others lawyers in Karachi were scheduled to leave for the capital Islamabad later on Thursday in a motor convoy, where they hope to join thousands of other protesters for a rally at the parliament Monday.

The growing political unrest is raising 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.

Human Rights Watch urged Pakistan to free those arrested. "It's a disgrace for elected officials to mimic the discredited military government by using old and repressive laws to stifle political expression," said Ali Dayan Hasan, a researcher for the group.

Pakistan's lawyers are demanding that President Asif Ali Zardari fulfill a pledge to restore judges removed by Musharraf. Opposition leader Nawaz 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 US 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 US war effort.

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." 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 that 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.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood avoided direct criticism of the Pakistani government on Wednesday, but said the US supported "freedom of speech, of expression, of assembly in Pakistan."