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Pakistan cracks down on eve of "long march"

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani authorities banned protests and rounded up hundreds of activists on Wednesday, officials said, a day before a rally by lawyers and opposition parties that could destabilize a fragile, year-old government.

Pakistani policemen arrest an activist of the Pakistan Muslim League after government-banned protests in Multan March 11, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer

The protest is one more problem for a civilian government led by President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) that took power a year ago and is struggling with economic and security crises.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan is seen as vital to U.S. efforts to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan and defeat al Qaeda. The United States wants to see it focus on fighting militancy rather than getting diverted by interminable political turmoil.

“Provincial governments are fully empowered to take action to keep law and order ... There are security threats,” Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik told reporters.

Earlier, authorities in Punjab and Sindh provinces announced bans on protests. A senior Punjab provincial official later said 300 political activists had been rounded up to stop them “disturbing the peace.”

Political worry has weighed on financial markets in recent days and stocks were lower again on Wednesday.

Anti-government lawyers and opposition parties vowed to press ahead with their plans for a cross-country protest motor convoy, known as a long march, on Thursday.

“It’s a defining moment for Pakistan,” former prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif told a rally in North West Frontier Province.

“This is an opportunity to save Pakistan ... promise me that you’ll fight this battle for the survival of Pakistan.”

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The activists are pushing for the reappointment of a former Supreme Court chief justice who then army chief and president Pervez Musharraf dismissed in 2007.

“It seems the government is determined to stop the long march,” said Tariq Mehmud, a senior lawyer and protest organizer.

“Our plan is intact. Let’s see what happens.”

PARLIAMENT SIT-IN

Mehmud said police had turned up at his home in Islamabad before dawn aiming to detain him but he managed to slip away. Another protest organizer, Aitzaz Ahsan, said police had come to his home but he was in hiding.

The lawyers, in league with opposition parties which can mobilize their supporters, pose a significant challenge to Zardari, who has refused to reappoint the former chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry.

The protesters’ convoy of cars and buses is due to set off in the southern provinces of Sindh and Baluchistan and reach Punjab on Friday. They aim to begin a sit-in outside parliament in the capital, Islamabad, on Monday.

Sharif is infuriated by a Supreme Court ruling last month that effectively barred him and his politician brother, Shahbaz, from contesting elections.

The Sharifs say Zardari was behind the ruling.

The government has threatened to prosecute Nawaz Sharif for sedition if violence erupts during the protest. It has also said the rally will not be allowed into central Islamabad but organizers can use open ground on the city’s outskirts.

Police were seen preparing shipping containers, which are used to block roads, in the city of Rawalpindi, adjacent to Islamabad, witnesses said.

Raja Zafar-ul-Haq, chairman of Sharif’s party, said police had put him under house arrest at his Islamabad home.

“We will remain peaceful and will peacefully defy the ban on the long march,” said Siddiq-ul-Farooq, a spokesman for Sharif’s party.

Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Paul Tait

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