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Pakistan detains 19 Islamists ahead of cartoons protest

Written by: Staff

LAHORE, Pakistan, Feb 26 (Reuters) Pakistani authorities detained 19 Islamists in the eastern city of Lahore after they vowed to defy a ban on rallies over cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammad, police said today.

The government banned public rallies in the central province of Punjab following last week's violent protest in the provincial capital Lahore in which two people were killed.

But, leaders of the main Islamist alliance, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), said they would stage a protest rally in Lahore later today despite the ban.

''We will hold the protest. It will be a peaceful rally,'' Shahid Shamsi, a spokesman for MMA said.

Punjab Law Minister Raja Basharat said the government had banned the entry of MMA secretary-general Fazal-ur-Rehman, a fiery orator, into Lahore to prevent him from leading the protest.

Authorities detained MMA head Qazi Hussain Ahmed in his party office in Lahore on Friday.

Shamsi said police had detained more than 100 MMA activists in overnight raids in Lahore. However, a spokesman for Lahore police said they had detained only 19 MMA workers during the past 24 hours.

Witnesses said paramilitary troops and police had blocked the roads leading to the headquarters of Jamaat-e-Islami, a major group in the six-party MMA.

Cartoons first published in a Danish newspaper and reprinted in other European papers have sparked protests worldwide by Muslims who believe it is blasphemous to depict the Prophet.

The protests, which have become almost routine in Pakistan, have increasingly targeted President Pervez Musharraf's military-led government for its alliance in the US-led war on terrorism.

Musharraf met with a group of Muslim clerics yesterday and said the government would effectively highlight the sentiments of Muslims at international forums.

''We believe that such publications under the pretext of freedom of the press cannot be justified,'' the official Associated Press of Pakistan quoted him as saying.

Two people died in violent protests in Lahore while three more people died in protests in the northwestern city of Peshawar.

While protests against the cartoons have subsided in Pakistan in recent days, the MMA has given a call for a countrywide strike on March 3, just ahead of an expected visit to Islamabad by US President George W. Bush.

Musharraf said he would discuss the issue with the US president.


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