March 15, 2009 / 9:06 PM / 10 years ago

Pakistan PM to address nation as crisis nears climax

ISLAMABAD, March 16 (Reuters) - Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was due to address the nation in the early hours of Monday morning, state television announced as the country faced a growing political crisis.

Gilani has tried to avert a showdown between his party boss President Asif Ali Zardari and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif by taking a conciliatory approach.

Sharif has called for mass protests to restore a Supreme Court chief justice whom the president regards as a potential threat to his position.

Despite the arrests of hundreds of political activists and lawyers in Lahore, Sharif and the lawyers’ movement he has hitched his fortunes to still managed to mobilise several thousand people on to the streets on Sunday.

The political crisis gripping the Muslim nation has alarmed the United States and Britain, which fear any slide into chaos would help the Taliban and al Qaeda become stronger in Pakistan.

Police initially tried to break up the protest in Lahore with tear gas and baton charges, but soon abandoned their attempts.

Having defied efforts to stifle their protest, lawyers and Sharif’s supporters drove north through the night on the historic Grand Trunk Road, heading for Islamabad and the climax of a series of protests begun last week that they have dubbed the "long march".

Western diplomats have tried to make Zardari and Sharif pull out of a collision that could destabilise the year-old civilian coalition, and force a reluctant army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, to intervene.

"The initiative for reconciliation should be taken by the government and it should fulfil its promises," Sharif told reporters during a stopover at Shadara town near Lahore.

The government has offered some concessions, but Sharif has refused to accept anything less than the restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry as chief justice.

Around 200 vehicles left Lahore with Sharif, while thousands of people lined the roadside cheering and waving flags.

As the cavalcade of cars and buses moved slowly northward, it was expected to pick up support from towns along the way.

To stop them driving into Islamabad, authorities positioned containers and trucks across roads outside the capital.

Paramilitary troops are camped in a city sports complex and deployed at entry points, while, officials say, the army has been put on stand-by.

The crisis began when Zardari ejected the PML-N from power in Punjab last month, after the Supreme Court barred Sharif and his younger brother, Shahbaz, from holding elected office. (Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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