ISLAMABAD: Police fired tear gas and rounded up protesters in Islamabad Friday, with the nuclear-armed nation in turmoil since a court banned the top opposition leader from contesting elections.
The cabinet met to discuss the crisis and paramilitaries went on alert as thousands rallied, one day after the country marked the biggest protests yet against President Asif Ali Zardari, who took office last September.
Protesters are heeding a call from former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who leads the second largest party in Pakistan, to rise up after the Supreme Court Wednesday barred him and his brother from holding public office.
Zardari and Sharif are at loggerheads over the future of Pakistan, a key US ally in the fight against Taliban and al-Qaeda militancy which has been teetering under financial crisis, extremism and weak government.
Analysts say Pakistan, reeling from extremist attacks that have killed more than 1,600 people in less than two years, can ill afford a showdown on top of international pressure to bring to justice those behind the Mumbai attacks.
In Islamabad, police fired tear gas shells to disperse stone throwers and dozens of protesters shouting slogans against the government on a key road leading to the international airport, an AFP photographer said.
Riot police, armed with batons, charged into the mob, beating demonstrators and rounding up around 25 protesters into vans, the photographer said.
A senior government official said Friday’s weekly cabinet meeting focused on ‘the situation arising after the Supreme Court decision.’
In Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, ousted chief minister Shahbaz Sharif addressed more than 1,000 lawyers and activists while another 500 people rallied outside the regional parliament, an AFP reporter said.
Waving green party flags and portraits of Nawaz Sharif, around 100 provincial lawmakers also shouted ‘Go Zardari Go,’ an AFP photographer said.
Shahbaz, Nawaz Sharif’s brother, lost his post in Punjab, the country’s political heartland, where the government suspended the provincial parliament.
The protestors in Lahore also torched tyres.
Hundreds more protested in Rawalpindi, Quetta and in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir.
Twice a former prime minister, 59-year-old Nawaz Sharif has tapped into widespread public discontent with Zardari, crowning his status as a key player in Pakistani politics since a seven-year exile in Saudi Arabia.
His Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) demands the reinstatement of constitutional court judges sacked when former military ruler Pervez Musharraf declared emergency rule in 2007.
‘On the request of the Punjab government we have deployed (put on alert) paramilitary forces to maintain law and order,’ interior ministry spokesman Shahidullah Baig told AFP.
‘The situation is under control,’ he added.
Police said complaints had been filed against hundreds of PML-N workers and three local leaders in connection with unrest and property damage on Thursday.
Sharif’s two terms as prime minister in the 1990s were marred by corruption claims and efforts to introduce Islamic sharia law.
The Supreme Court confirmed a lower court verdict in Lahore last June that he was ineligible to stand in a by-election due to past convictions.