Pakistan anti-government protests draw determined crowd

ISLAMABAD Sat Aug 16, 2014 2:03pm EDT

1 of 3. Supporters of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, a political party led by cricketer-turned-opposition politician Imran Khan, wave flags from the roof of a van as they arrive with the Freedom March in Islamabad August 16, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Akhtar Soomro

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters flooded the center of Pakistan's capital on Saturday, vowing to stay in the streets until Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resigns.

The numbers were far below what protest organizers expected, but the protesters' paralysis of the central business district is presenting the 15-month-old civilian government with its biggest challenge yet.

The unrest raises questions about Pakistan's stability at a time when the nuclear-armed nation of 180 million is waging an offensive against Pakistani Taliban militants and the influence of anti-Western and sectarian groups is growing.

Riot police cordoned off two streets in downtown Islamabad with shipping containers and barbed wire for the protests. Police estimated the numbers at about 60,000 for both marches combined, although Reuters reporters saw fewer.

Protest organizers say they are peaceful but determined.

"The prime minister and chief minister of Punjab should immediately resign and they should be sent to jail," thundered populist cleric Tahir ul-Qadri after arriving in a convoy of black Toyotas, their tinted windows speckled with rose petals.

"The participants of the Revolution March will not go from here till the resignation of Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif, the dissolution of the government and their subsequent arrest," he said.

He spoke from a makeshift wooden pulpit atop a shipping container, with two men in black crouched on either side of him carrying bullet-proof blankets.

His supporters are adamant they will not leave until Qadri tells them to. The men carried stout sticks a few feet long. Brigades of men and women in fluorescent jackets had gas masks, swimming goggles and bottles of water.

"We are here to disarm the gas shells," explained one.

Qadri, a cleric and political activist who usually lives in Canada, controls a network of schools and Islamic charities.

He wants the prime minister to resign and a new government of technocrats installed. He promises he will crack down on corruption, and generate enough funds to pay for homes, jobs, cheap energy and water.

"Once corruption is eradicated, the country can move forward. It is the only thing holding us back," said 15-year-old Umme Habiba, a vivacious student with dimples and long black robes who said she came with her whole family.

Qadri is also protesting over the deaths of 14 of his supporters killed in clashes with police in June. He tried to register a case accusing Sharif of the deaths, but police had refused to take his complaint. On Saturday, the High Court in the eastern city of Lahore ordered his complaint recorded.

IMRAN KHAN

Former cricket star Imran Khan, who heads the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, was also holding a smaller protest sit-in on an adjacent street.

The crowds - mostly young men - danced to music blasting from speakers or swapped T-shirts with Khan's face on them.

"Imran Khan is not a corrupt person. He's loyal to people and the country," said 25-year-old student Aqsa Ijaz, as she sat atop of a shipping container with her cousin, a banker.

Khan also wants Sharif to step down, accusing him of rigging last year's elections. Sharif won by a landslide, taking 190 out of 342 seats. Khan also did well in the elections, coming from political obscurity to take 34 seats, the third largest bloc in the legislature. But he says he should have had many more.

Khan waited until early evening, after it had begun to rain, to address his thousands of supporters. "I am restraining (my supporters) now but may not be able to soon," he said.

Like Qadri, Khan also commands intense personal loyalty from his followers. Pakistanis remember he led them to victory in the 1992 World Cup and his charity work is well-known.

Some members of Sharif's party have suggested the protests are secretly backed by elements in the powerful military, which has had an uneasy relationship with Sharif.

The government has annoyed the military by prosecuting former army chief and president Pervez Musharraf for treason and by insisting on months of fruitless peace talks before launching an anti-Taliban offensive.

The government is also struggling to overcome power shortages, high unemployment and spiraling crime - the main complaints of people at both protests.

"This government has failed the poor people," said farmer Razwan Baloch. "Everyone is here because life is so hard."

(Additional reporting by Mehreen Zahra-Malik; Writing by John Chalmers and Katharine Houreld; Editing by Richard Borsuk and Stephen Powell)

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Comments (5)
mrramon2004 wrote:
Ignorance and arrogance in humans, is the worst enemy we have.Message.
The day we recognize and realize what we are, that the day we will learn that theres no reason or motive to hate or kill each other. That day Mother Nature will be happy and proud of the burden she bears, that beautiful process called life.
[We are all light]
In this life and the next Stay in the light.
Ramón.
Send this message to your friends.

Aug 16, 2014 10:18am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Muzzi wrote:
Reuters, there are closer to 200,000 people at this protest and not 20,000. People in Pakistan saying hundreds of vehicles with many people have been heading towards Islamabad since this started. Imran Khan will only finish this protest when the highly corrupt present Government of Nawaz Sharif abdicate. People in Pakistan are sick and tired of the corrupt politicians and want a honest Government led by Imran to take over.

Aug 16, 2014 10:22am EDT  --  Report as abuse
dd606 wrote:
And people can’t understand why Iran shouldn’t have nuclear weapons.

Aug 16, 2014 1:58pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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