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Hopes for Pakistani compromise fade, protests go on

Hopes for a compromise between the Pakistani government and its protesting opponents faded on Saturday with President Asif Ali Zardari refusing to cave in to pressure, a senior government official said.

world Updated: Mar 14, 2009 12:26 IST

Hopes for a compromise between the Pakistani government and its protesting opponents faded on Saturday with President Asif Ali Zardari refusing to cave in to pressure, a senior government official said.

A protest campaign by lawyers and opposition parties for an independent judiciary threatens to bring turmoil to nuclear-armed Pakistan as its year-old civilian government struggles to stem surging Islamist militancy and to revive a flagging economy.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has been promoting a compromise package involving concessions to the main opposition party, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and the judiciary.

But Zardari, widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was standing firm, at least until after the climax early next week of a nationwide "long march" protest by lawyers and opposition activists.

"From what I know, President Zardari has made it clear: 'I am not going to negotiate under pressure. Mr Sharif has to abandon the long march'," said a senior government official, who declined to be identified.

The News newspaper said Zardari had rejected a compromise package backed by the United States and Britain, whose top diplomats have consulted both sides in recent days.

Zardari would only consider the reconciliation formula after Monday, when the long march is due to climax with a sit-in outside parliament in Islamabad, the newspaper said.

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 to see is Pakistan consumed by 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 in some way, though most analysts say a military takeover is highly unlikely.

Crack Down

Police have detained hundreds of lawyers and opposition activists since a crackdown was launched on Wednesday in a bid to stifle the protest.

Nevertheless, black-suited lawyers and flag-waving activists launched the protest in the cities of Karachi and Quetta on Thursday, aiming to head to Islamabad, picking up support along the way.

But authorities have effectively broken up the planned procession with the detentions, bans on rallies and road blocks.

Police detained some activists trying to form a protest in the city of Multan on Saturday while several hundred lawyers gathered at the city's bar association, witnesses said.

Despite the crack down, the protesters have vowed to press on with rallies in Lahore on Sunday and Islamabad the next day.

Their main demand is the reinstatement of former Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was dismissed in 2007 by the then president and army chief Pervez Musharraf.

Zardari has refused to reinstate the judge, seeing him as a threat to his own position.

Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, an avowed constitutionalist, met both Zardari and Gilani on Friday.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the American PBS network, he doubted Kayani would intervene.

"I don't think that possibility is out there as a high probability right now, but certainly it's a concern," Mullen said.

Meanwhile, at least one television station known for its opposition to Zardari said authorities had interfered with its broadcasts through cable operators.

That evoked memories of Musharraf, who clamped down on the media in 2007 although the state broadcasting agency denied any interference.

Newspapers said Information Minister Sherry Rehman had resigned in response to the action against the media but a presidential aide denied that.

Rehman was not available for comment.

First Published: Mar 14, 2009 12:24 IST