Archive for December 3, 2014

August 15, 2014

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Thousands of Pakistani opposition supporters were on the road for a second day Friday, heading in two separate convoys to the capital, Islamabad, for a massive rally meant to pressure the country’s prime minister to resign over allegations of rigging last year’s parliamentary elections.

The convoys, which started out on Thursday morning from the city of Lahore, were in response to calls by two very different opposition figures: Imran Khan, the famous cricketer-turned-politician, and firebrand cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri who commands a strong following through his network of mosques and religious schools in Pakistan.

Both have challenged the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who came to power in 2013 in the first democratic transfer of power in a country which has seen three coups since gaining independence in 1947.

They demand new elections under the supervision of a neutral government, but Sharif’s aides say the demand is unconstitutional. Khan also wants a new election commission chief appointed before the vote is held, while Qadri says electoral reforms are necessary.

The opposition march comes at a time when Pakistan’s military is fighting militants in the troubled North Waziristan tribal region, which has been a base for militants accused of launching attacks in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. The military has killed over 500 militants there since launching the June 15 operation.

The government has criticized Khan and Qadri, saying the country needs unity — not turmoil and dissent — at a time when the armed forces are fighting militants who have killed thousands of people in recent years. Authorities have also said there have been intelligence reports about possible attacks on the convoys or the opposition rally, which is expected to start Friday evening in Islamabad.

After 20 hours on the road, the slow-moving convoys had covered about half of the distance of 300 kilometers (187 miles) toward the capital. “Listen, Nawaz Sharif, I am coming to Islamabad to seek your resignation,” a boisterous Khan told followers from atop his truck as it passed through the city of Gujranwala, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) away from Islamabad.

In Gujranwala, dozens of Sharif supporters pelted Khan’s truck with shoes and stones but he was unharmed, his aides said. Pakistani TV showed supporters and Khan and Sharif throwing stones at each other in the city.

Earlier, Khan said he was hoping to lead a march of one million people in the Pakistani capital later in the day. Qadri also said he expected one million people to join him in Islamabad, a city of 1.7 million residents according to a 2012 census.

Ahead of the rally, thousands of riot police and special units were deployed across Islamabad. Authorities also blocked many roads in the capital with shipping containers. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan on Thursday apologized for the city’s paralysis, insisting the measures were for the residents’ own safety and warning the demonstrators they would be dealt with “an iron hand” if they try to disrupt law and order.

Sharif criticized his opponents for pursuing “negative politics” and promised to safeguard democratic institutions. Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country of 180 million people, has largely been ruled by military dictators since it was carved out of India in 1947.

Sharif has also been the victim of a military coup. His elected government was ousted in 1999 by then army chief Pervez Musharraf. The army still wields much influence over life in Pakistan, which has seen frequent attacks by militants and insurgents of various backgrounds and agendas.

Late Thursday, attackers tried to storm two air bases in the southwestern city of Quetta, the capital of southwestern Baluchistan province, sparking a gunbattle that killed 10 militants, the police said.

Police chief Muhammad Amlish said seven security personnel were also wounded in the attack. He said the attackers used guns and grenades as they tried to enter the Smungli and Khalid military bases on a sprawling complex next to the city’s airport. Initial police reports had said only two attackers were involved.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack but nationalists groups have for years waged a low-insurgency in Baluchistan to pressure the government for a fairer share of local resources.

Associated Press Writer Abdul Sattar from Quetta contributed to this report.

August 14, 2014

LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — Thousands of Pakistani opposition supporters on Thursday joined a large convoy headed to the capital, Islamabad, for a key rally to demand the ouster of the prime minister over allegations of vote fraud.

The rally is seen as the strongest challenge yet to the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, just a year after he took office in the first democratic transfer of power in a country long plagued by military coups.

The protesters set out on Thursday morning from the city of Lahore in cars, trucks and buses, while others walked or drove motorcycles as they embarked on the 300 kilometer (187 mile) journey to Islamabad. Initially 5,000 protesters were on the march, but the number steadily increased. The convoy was moving so slow that it could cover only a distance of five kilometers in seven hours.

The convoy is led by Imran Khan, famous cricketer-turned-politician who heads the Tehrik-e-Insaf party, the third-largest in parliament. The demonstration was called to coincide with Pakistan’s Independence Day.

“I am going to Islamabad to seek resignation from Nawaz Sharif,” Khan told supporters in a speech Thursday evening. “Get ready to win the match,” said Khan, who is revered in Pakistan for leading the national team that won the 1992 cricket World Cup.

Sharif’s ruling party has rejected Imran’s demand, saying the elected democratic government would complete its term, which ends in 2018. Thousands of policemen were deployed across Islamabad and along the convoy’s route while the capital’s entry points were blocked since earlier this week with large shipping containers.

“We are taking measures to secure the capital from any violence,” said police official Jamil Hashmi. Earlier, the convoy got off to a colorful start in Lahore, with protesters dancing to the beat of the drums and singing patriotic songs. Many women had the green and white of the Pakistani national flag painted on their cheeks, along with the red and green of Khan’s party.

Also on the march Thursday was Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Pakistani cleric who is also a Canadian national and who commands a loyal following of thousands through his network of mosques and religious schools in Pakistan. He left Lahore with thousands of his followers and was expected to join Khan’s rally on the road or in Islamabad.

Both the cleric and Khan demand Sharif’s government step down and new elections be held. Khan alleges last year’s vote was invalid due to widespread rigging by government supporters. There was also concern that, once in Islamabad, the rally could descend into violence.

“We are out on the streets to do our struggle for a change in the system,” said one of the protesters, Mohammad Faheem. Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country of 180 million people, has largely been ruled by military dictators since it was carved out of India in 1947.

Sharif, himself overthrown in the 1999 coup that brought former army chief Pervez Musharraf to power, has met regularly with top advisers ahead of the rally. The government has also invoked a rarely-used article in the constitution allowing the military to step in to maintain law and order if needed.

Speaking at an Independence Day ceremony in southwestern Pakistan, Sharif criticized the opposition rally, calling it “negative politics.” Sharif said Khan would be better advised to “work to alleviate poverty and improve law and order” in Pakistan.

Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed, Asif Shahzad and Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.