The army was placed on alert in Islamabad on Saturday as a defiant opposition leader Nawaz Sharif turned down the government's plea to call off the lawyers' 'long march' for restoration of the Supreme Court judges sacked in 2007, saying there was no room left for talks.
In other developments on Saturday, Information and Broadcasting Minister Sherry Rehman sent her resignation to Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, apparently miffed over President Asif Ali Zardari's orders to blank out Geo TV and other private channels for highlighting the lawyers' stir.
"At the moment, the police are in place but the army has been asked to stand by in case it is required," an official spokesman said.
The government has vowed to prevent the marchers from entering Islamabad and staging a sit-in before parliament.
Speaking to reporters at his home on the outskirts of Lahore, Sharif said he was all for reconciliation but was not prepared to take Zardari at his word.
"He had said earlier that he would not become the president but he did become so," Sharif pointed out.
At the same time, he urged Gilani to take the initiative to break the deadlock, assuring him of his full support.
Thousands of lawyers on Thursday set out simultaneously from Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab and will converge in Islamabad on March 16 to demand the reinstatement of the Supreme Court and the high court judges whom then president Pervez Musharraf had sacked after imposing an emergency in November 2007. A similar agitation a year ago had resulted in Musharraf's ouster.
Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has jumped on to the lawyers' bandwagon to protest a Supreme Court judgement barring the former prime minister and his brother from contesting elections on corruption charges. The verdict led to the fall of Shahbaz Sharif's Punjab government and the imposition of Governor's Rule in the province.
Nawaz Sharif has accused Zardari of engineering the court verdict to settle political scores.
Observers in Islamabad saw Sharif's appeal to Gilani as an attempt to drive a wedge between the prime minister and the president, who are not known to be on the best of terms.
Interior Minister Rehman Khan, however, sought to dispel suggestions that all was not well between Zardari and Gilani, even as he appealed to the lawyers to come to the negotiating table, warning that the marchers would not be permitted to enter Islamabad.
"There are no differences between the president and the prime minister," he said at a press conference here, adding: "This is disinformation being spread by our enemies."
"Let us not head toward another East Pakistan," he said, while appealing to the protesting lawyers to abandon their 'long march' and sit for talks with the government.
The reference was to the agitation in the erstwhile East Pakistan after the 1971 elections that eventually led to the creation of an independent Bangladesh. The agitation began after then military dictator Gen Yahya Khan refused to accept the electoral verdict that saw the Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman emerge as the largest party in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament.
"I appeal to you to come for talks. Please postpone your agitation. Your march is against the unity of the nation," Rehman maintained.
"If at all there has to be a march, let us march to Swat, to FATA. Let us march for the country," he stated.
"I again appeal to you. Please consider the interests of the country. Don't march to Islamabad. Let's talk and resolve our issues," the interior minister said, adding: "The long march cannot be against the interest of Pakistan."
Malik refused to be drawn into the circumstances under which Sherry Rehman had resigned, saying: "Only she can answer that question."
He also contended that the government had nothing do with the blackout of TV channels.
"There was a dispute regarding the channel. It was a problem of the cable operators. We had nothing to do with it. We believe in the freedom of journalism," Malik maintained.
At the same time, he implied that the private TV channels were not 'independent'.
"I want you to watch five channels. Are they partial or are they impartial?" he asked.
Geo TV insisted Zardari had ordered the ban.
"It has been learned that cable operators across the country blocked the transmission of Geo News on the directive of President Asif Ali Zardari," it said in a posting on its website.
"President Zardari has sent messages to Geo TV administration in which he has said that if Geo has recovered from the courts the losses incurred following the ban on the channel in former president Pervez Musharraf's rule then it should stop forthwith the coverage of lawyers movement for the restoration of November 3, 2007 judiciary.
"The reason why President Asif Ali Zardari has taken the step is that Geo TV is reminding the President of his past promises and commitments he had made to the nation and what Shaheed Benazir Bhutto had said about the freedom of expression, restoration of judiciary and Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry," Geo TV said.