Thousands join Sharif on long march, pitched battles in Lahore (Fifth Lead)

March 15th, 2009 - 6:16 pm ICT by IANS  

Lahore, March 15 (IANS) Thousands of people joined former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif as he defied house arrest orders Sunday to lead his party’s “long march” to demand reinstatement of sacked judges as lawyers and political activists fought pitched battles with the police.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) chief left his Model Town home here for Kalma Chowk from where the cavalcade passed through Icchra area that leads to GPO Chowk, where lawyers and political activists gathered for the march to Islamabad. The police lobbed tear gas shells on the assembly to disperse them.

Sharif’s party workers, ignoring the house arrest orders, opened the main gate of his house to let his cavalcade drive out in the afternoon as the police stood mutely without offering any resistance.

Sharif was accompanied by dozens of party activists and the numbers continued to swell. By the time the cavalcade reached Icchra area, thousands of people had joined the motorcade.

Sharif said Pakistan was turning into a “police state”. Addressing reporters at his residence in Lahore, the capital city of Punjab province, Sharif urged people to join the national march of the lawyers.

“The government can do nothing to stop us,” Sharif said, adding that it was illegal to put him under house arrest.

During the day, lawyers at GPO Chowk pelted stones at the police which rounded up some of the political activists.

Sharif’s brother, former Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, and cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf party chief, reached Rawalpindi as the government issued directives for their house arrest.

Dozens of political workers were arrested.

The police tried to arrest Shahbaz Sharif from the house of PML-N leader Chaudhry Tanveer in Rawalpindi, but Shahbaz has “managed to escape”, a media report said.

Earlier, defiant lawyers gathered outside the Lahore High Court and broke down its gate to continue their ‘long march’.

After breaking down the gate, the lawyers and political activists marched ahead to the GPO Chowk.

In a move to stem further political trouble, the government early Sunday placed Nawaz Sharif and other opposition leaders under house arrest for three days.

Inter-city transport came to a halt as the administration stopped buses from operating, causing inconvenience to thousands of people. Truck drivers also suspended their operation, affecting business and trade.

The highway police were instructed to search private cars and vehicles.

Apart from highways, the police placed containers and tractor trolleys that they had commandeered on the roads to stop vehicular movement.

The government move comes after Nawaz Sharif late Saturday rejected President Asif Ali Zardari’s offer of seeking a review of a Supreme Court verdict barring him and his brother Shahbaz Sharif from contesting elections and said the lawyers’ stir for reinstating the sacked judges would go ahead nonetheless.

“I am declaring here that come what may, the lawyers’ long march will continue to Islamabad,” Sharif said at a rally in Lahore Saturday night, even as the government earlier in the day asked the army to remain on standby to prevent the protesters from entering the federal capital.

In a major climbdown to end the lawyers’ protest, the Pakistani government had said it would appeal against the Supreme Court ruling on the Sharif brothers and also take steps to reinstate the judges then president Pervez Musharraf sacked after declaring an emergency in November 2007.

Zardari’s reneging on the agreement had prompted Sharif’s PML-N to walk out of the coalition led by the president’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) formed after the February 2008 general elections.

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