Pak Government continues with security crackdown as 'Long March' gets underway

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Lahore/Karachi/Quetta, Mar.12 (ANI): The Pakistan Government continued with its security crackdown on opposition leaders and activists for the second consecutive day Thursday, even as the proposed "Long March" got underway in various provincial capitals.

Police said that close 100 more leaders and activists had been taken into custody on charges of disturbing the peace and compromising law and order.

In Baloch capital Quetta, political workers and lawyers gathered defiantly for the proposed "Long March". Shouting slogans and waving party flags, they boarded cars or organised sit-down protests. Pictures of sacked Pakistan Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and leaders of various legal organisations dotted the skyline and accompanying vehicles.

Agencies quoted Ali Ahmed Kurd, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, as saying: "I want to make it clear that we have been peaceful for the last two years and we are peaceful at the moment but our way should not be blocked."

The so-called "Long March" to press for an independent judiciary could destabilise the year-old government of President Asif Ali Zardari at a time when key US ally Pakistan faces severe problems from Islamist militants and a sinking economy.

In Karachi, Pakistani lawyers and opposition parties were heading for a showdown with the government which has banned rallies and detained hundreds of activists.

Paramilitary soldiers and police surrounded the High Court where lawyers were assembling, witnesses said.

'Our buses are not being allowed in so we intend to walk,' Munir A. Malik, a former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association and a protest organiser.

The protesters are expected to converge on Islamabad on Monday to demand the reinstatement of Chaudhry, who was dismissed by former president and army chief Pervez Musharraf in 2007.

The protest organisers plan a sit-in outside parliament, although the government has said the rally will not be allowed in the city centre.

Zardari has refused to reinstate the judge. Analysts say he fears Chaudhry could nullify an amnesty Musharraf granted Zardari and his late wife Benazir Bhutto.

His main rival, opposition leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, has thrown his weight behind the lawyers, putting him into open confrontation with Zardari.

Sharif, who is also infuriated by a Supreme Court ruling which barred him and his brother from office, and which he blamed on Zardari, called the protest a defining moment for Pakistan.

The government has threatened to prosecute Sharif for sedition if violence erupts during the "Long March".

If the crisis becomes acute, the military, which has ruled for more than half the country's 61 years of history, may have no choice but to step in.

Top US and British diplomats have been meeting all sides in recent days in an effort to work out a compromise.

The United States called for restraint and urged all sides to avoid violence and respect the rule of law, a US embassy spokesman said.

Worry about political turmoil has weighed on financial markets in recent days but the the main stock index opened higher and the rupee was flat.(ANI)

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