‘It is a sea of people’

March 15th, 2009 - 8:33 pm ICT by IANS  

Islamabad/Lahore, March 15 (DPA) It was a sea of humanity as tens of thousands of supporters of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif thronged in the streets as he left his residence in a dark green armoured Land Cruiser, despite a government ban on public gathering and a massive deployment of law-enforcement personnel.
“It’s a sea of people. It looks as though the entire Lahore city is gathered here. Young, elders, women, children - everyone is here,” local journalist Younis Bath said.

The crowd chanted slogans against the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, including “Death to Zardari,” “Zardari is a dog” and “Restore the judges.” There were also calls for revolution and change.

Sharif publicly supported a campaign spearheaded by defiant lawyers seeking reinstatement of judges, including former Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who had been removed by ex-president Pervez Musharraf.

Zardari, the widower of former slain premier Benazir Bhutto, promised to restore the judges after he took over last year, but refused to do so later on.

Earlier, hundreds of policemen surrounded Sharif’s residence and sealed all the access roads, Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman of his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party said.

A top official from the Interior Ministry, Rehman Malik, told British broadcaster BBC that Sharif had not been placed under house arrest and was free to move around.

“Come and join me. I am leaving the house. The time has come to march hand-in-hand,” Sharif told a charged crowd before leaving as his party workers removed the road blocks. The police officers stood aside.

Some 15 kilometres from Sharif’s residence, in the heart of Lahore, police used hundreds of tear gas canisters and batons to disperse his supporters which pelted the security personnel with stones.

According to some media reports, several people were injured, including some policemen.

Law enforcers retreated following hours-long clashes and some policemen joined the crowd and chanted slogans in favour of Sharif, Geo television reported.

Principal roads in nearly all main towns along the planned route to Islamabad were blocked using shipping containers, lorries and concrete barriers. The government also blocked text service on mobile phones and transmissions of television news channel in capital.

More than 1,000 activists are already in police custody amid a country-wide crackdown on opposition groups to ward off the Islamabad rally.

The political turmoil has raised concerns in Washington and other Western capitals which want Zardari and Sharif to end their feud and join efforts against Islamic extremism.

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