Pakistani lawyers challenging the government will step up their cross-country protest campaign despite beatings and arrests by the police, a rally leader said on Friday.
The protest by lawyers and opposition parties for an independent judiciary threatens to bring chaos as President Asif Ali Zardari's government struggles to control spreading Islamist militancy and to revive a sinking economy.
"The way our lawyers were beaten up and arrested, we've decided that we need to intensify our struggle," Ali Ahmed Kurd, president of the Supreme Court bar association and a protest organiser, told reporters in Baluchistan province.
Black-suited lawyers and flag-waving opposition activists launched their so-called long march protest in the cities of Karachi and Quetta on Thursday, despite a ban on rallies and the detention of hundreds of activists.
Baton-wielding police clashed with protesters in Karachi, the capital of Sindh province, and arrested several of their leaders as they tried to stop a convoy of cars and buses leaving the city.
While trying to thwart the protest, the year-old civilian coalition government is also scrambling for a way to avert a showdown that could easily flare into street violence.
Pakistan's efforts to eliminate Taliban and Al-Qaeda enclaves on the Afghan border are vital to US plans to stabilise Afghanistan and defeat Al-Qaeda.
The last thing the United States wants is to see Pakistan consumed by political turmoil. If the crisis gets out of hand, the army, which has ruled for more than half the country's 61 years of history, could feel compelled to intervene.
Pakistan President Zardari spoke by telephone with the US special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, and Ambassador Anne Patterson for 30 minutes on Thursday, the President's office said.
US State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the reason for the call and a separate conversation between Patterson and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif was to stress the US desire that violence be avoided, the rule of law respected and there be no impediments to peaceful, democratic activities.
Zardari also spoke with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
Sharif, a former prime minister, has thrown his weight behind the lawyers, putting him into open confrontation with Zardari.
Infuriated by a Supreme Court ruling barring him and his brother from elected office, and by Zardari ejecting his party from power in Punjab province and imposing central rule, Sharif has called the protest a defining moment for Pakistan.
The secretary general of Sharif's party, Zafar Iqbal Jhagra, said dozens of second-tier party leaders were detained in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Friday.
Police also stopped Kurd and his colleagues in a convoy of dozens of cars in the town of Dera Allah Yar on the border of Baluchistan and Sindh provinces. The protesters hope to converge on Islamabad on Monday to demand the reinstatement of former Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. He was dismissed by former president and army chief Pervez Musharraf in 2007.
Zardari has refused to reinstate Chaudhry. Analysts say he fears the judge could nullify an amnesty Musharraf granted Zardari and his late wife Benazir Bhutto. But Kurd said the protesters would not be deterred.
"I appeal to every lawyer, political activist, members of civil society and those who want democracy and the rule of law to try to enter Islamabad, either individually or in groups, by whatever means they can," he said.
The government has said the rally will not be allowed into central Islamabad.