Paramilitary troops were deployed in eastern Pakistan on Friday after supporters of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif torched cars and stoned buildings to protest a court order that barred him from elected office.
The unrest and brewing political crisis risk distracting Pakistan's shaky government from the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban and the country's perilous economic situation. Wednesday's rulings upheld an existing ban on Sharif from contesting elections because of a criminal conviction related to the 1999 military coup by former President Pervez Musharraf that ousted Sharif as prime minister.
The rulings also removed his brother as head of the government in Punjab, Pakistan's richest and most populous province. Thousands of his supporters took to the streets Thursday in several towns and cites, waving his party's green flags and chanting anti-government slogans. Most were peaceful, but some set up barricades of burning tires and used rocks to smash the windows of stores and banks in Rawalpindi. Later, police and protesters clashed closed to the capital and four vehicles were set alight. Interior Ministry spokesman Shahedullah Baig said paramilitary troops were deployed in the Punjab province on request from the provincial government. He provided no further details. The court decisions prevent Sharif from challenging President Asif Ali Zardari in the 2013 general elections. Zardari compounded the blow by dismissing the government in Punjab and putting its governor - a Zardari loyalist - in charge.
Sharif, widely considered the country's most popular politician, has accused Zardari of orchestrating the court decisions and called for protests.
He also has urged his supporters to join mass rallies planned for mid-March by Pakistan's lawyers, whose protests for an independent judiciary undermined Musharraf's long rule.
Dozens of judges who were ousted when Musharraf imposed emergency rule in 2007 have returned to the courts under the year-old government led by Zardari's party.
But the government has blocked the return of Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the former chief justice who questioned a pact that quashed long-standing corruption charges against Zardari and his slain wife, former leader Benazir Bhutto.
Meanwhile, gunmen opened fire on a school van near the northwestern town of Hangu on Friday, killing its driver and injuring three students before abducting six other children, police officer Arshad Khan said. Those abducted were between the ages of nine and 18, he said.
Pakistan's northwest is a violent, lawless region, where criminal gangs and Islamist militants take refuge.