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Rebellion rattles Zardari

Karachi, March 15: The Pakistan government is said to be preparing to reinstate former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, the main demand of Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif who is leading rebellious caravans of supporters towards Islamabad.

“Revolution” on lips, Sharif today smashed through barbed barricades in his home and headed to Islamabad on a so-called “Long March”, the complexion of the protest changing with many law-enforcement officials inexplicably disappearing from the streets of Lahore.

Two hours past midnight, Geo TV reported that Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, who had a meeting with President Asif Ali Zardari and army chief Parvez Kayani, would address the country “in a little while”.

The channel quoted sources as saying Gilani would announce the reinstatement of Chaudhry, who was sacked as chief justice by Pervez Musharraf.

Zardari was reluctant to reappoint Chaudhry apparently because the President fears the maverick judge might overturn an amnesty deal the Bhutto family struck with Musharraf.

It remains to be seen whether Sharif would back down if and when the judge is reinstated. Some observers had said earlier that the protest had taken on a life of its own and Sharif might not stop until Zardari was ousted or early elections were called.

Last night, Zardari had made some overtures to Sharif but skirted the demand to bring back the judge, following which the Opposition leader pressed ahead with the march despite detention orders.

What had begun as a cat-and-mouse game between protesters and police in the morning in Lahore, Sharif’s stronghold, turned into a huge show of defiance against the government by evening.

It was not clear whether the police had pulled back to allow the protesters to let off steam and stem the running battles that broke out during the day.

However, some reports spoke of a virtual mutiny by some key police and administrative officials, which, if true, would mean that Zardari’s first line of defence has already fallen.

In Islamabad, deputy attorney-general Abdul Hai Gilani said he had resigned to protest the torture of lawyers and the police action against the protesters. In Lahore, district co-ordination officer Sajjad Bhutta, inspector-general of police Khalid Farooq and deputy inspector-general Amjad Saleemi are said to have resigned after being told to open fire on the protesters.

The turnaround from police crackdown to a huge anti-government show was extremely unusual in Pakistan. “This is the first time in the history of Pakistan that the police and the civil administration have defied orders by the government to control public demonstrations,” said Ashtar Ali, a lawyer who supports Sharif.

By nightfall, Sharif’s slow-moving convoy, wading through a wave of extraordinary confluence of political, social and religious groups, was 300km from Islamabad.

Sharif’s destination was littered this evening with shipping containers, placed by security forces in the middle of several roads to block the march, which made the otherwise picture-postcard capital city look like an industrial graveyard.

In Lahore, the mood was festive as the police pulled back in the evening. “People have responded very overwhelmingly to the call of the hour, and I am thankful to the nation,” Sharif told Geo Television. “This is a prelude to a revolution.”

A few hours earlier, Sharif had shown the same rebellious streak, ignoring warnings of sedition charges. Equating his Long March to the 1947 freedom struggle, Sharif gave a call for Zardari’s ouster. “I tell every Pakistani youth that this is not the time to stay home; Pakistan is calling you to ‘come and save me’.”

Hundreds of police had surrounded Sharif’s home in Lahore before dawn and a police officer had tried to deliver detention orders, his party said, though the government did not confirm the house arrest.

Sharif’s convoy broke through a ring of barriers, including barbed wire and buses, placed by the police. Apparently with the help of sympathetic police officers, the caravan was able to move forward.

Sharif’s brother Shahbaz and many other anti-government leaders, including former cricketer Imran Khan who heads the Tehreek-e-Insaf party, went underground to dodge detention orders.

Zardari has sought to pile pressure on the US to step up efforts for a rapprochement by playing a familiar trump card. Government sources said security forces might have to be redeployed from the Afghan border to the capital city if the march was not called off.

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