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Pakistan braces for protest rallies


A couple walks on a major highway in front of containers placed to block roads in Islamabad August 13, 2014. Thousands of riot police sealed off Pakistan's capital with barbed wire and shipping containers on the eve of the country's Independence Day, in a bid to foil mass protests aimed at toppling embattled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Photo: Reuters/Faisal Mahmood
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Islamabad: Pakistani authorities blocked almost every entry point to Islamabad yesterday, with more than 20,000 police and paramilitary forces deployed to try to thwart a major anti-government rally.

Major roads were barricaded with shipping containers and police used excavators to dig up smaller roads, a day before two opposition protest marches are due to converge on the capital.

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Canada-based preacher Tahirul Qadri plan to march on the city today, Pakistan's Independence Day, to demand Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resign and call fresh elections.

Both Khan and Qadri, who led mass demonstrations in Islamabad early last year to urge electoral reform, allege that the May 2013 general election was rigged.

By late yesterday afternoon only the highway to the airport remained open and even there shipping containers were on standby ready to be moved into place.

The heavily-guarded "red zone", home to parliament, the president and prime minister's residences and foreign embassies, was already sealed with containers, barbed wire and concrete blocks.

Mobile services shut

Mobile phone services were shut down in the red zone yesterday — a common practice on sensitive occasions in Pakistan aimed at stopping militants using cell phones to detonate bombs.

In front of the five-star Serena hotel, the road was blocked with several containers guarded by around 50 to 60 policemen.  

The city streets were largely deserted yesterday, with almost all offices and shops closed.
The government yesterday asked the Supreme Court to set up a panel of judges to investigate claims of rigging in last year's general election — a move announced by Sharif late on Tuesday to try to ease political tension.

Key demand

The judicial probe was a key demand of Khan but he rejected Sharif's proposal and demanded he step down.

Sharif's landslide general election victory in May 2013 saw Pakistan's first ever handover of power from one civilian-led government to another after a full term, in polls that local and foreign observers called credible.

In his television address on Tuesday, the 64-year-old prime minister said economic progress had been made under his government but the opposition groups' protests would reverse the gains.

Khan and Qadri, who says he is struggling for an "interim national government" consisting of technocrats and experts, have announced they will merge their marches.

Tension has gripped parts of the country since last week, with running clashes between police and supporters of Qadri in the eastern city of Lahore over several days leaving at least one protester dead.

The government for its part has rejected the allegations of vote-rigging and accuses the opposition groups of attempting to obtain by force what they could not achieve through democratic means.

Punjab provincial law minister Rana Mashhood said that more than 1,000 Qadri and Khan activists had been detained in recent days on suspicion of inciting or perpetrating violence.


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