- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

ISLAMABAD (AP) - Pakistan’s government will appeal a court ruling against opposition leaders in an attempt to ease the country’s deepening political crisis, an official said Saturday, while also putting the army on alert ahead of planned protests in the capital.

The pledge was the first major concession to the opposition leaders and came amid growing U.S. alarm that the standoff could undermine the year-old government and distract it from battling Islamist extremists.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan lurched toward turmoil last month when the Supreme Court disqualified opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and his brother from elected office.

President Asif Ali Zardari deepened the crisis by dismissing the provincial administration in Punjab, which had been led by Sharif’s brother and was his party’s only foothold in Pakistan’s patronage-based political system.

Sharif, a former prime minister, then threw his weight behind planned protests by lawyers calling for an independent judiciary which authorities have vowed to thwart.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed concern about the crisis in phone calls with both Zardari and Sharif on Saturday, officials said.

Clinton “urged a settlement through negotiations,” Sharif spokesman Pervaiz Rasheed said.

Hours later, the government announced it would appeal the Supreme Court ruling in the coming week.

“This is part of the government’s policy to resolve political issues through reconciliation and negotiation,” spokesman Farhatullah Babar said. “We want to bring down the political temperature.”

It was unclear if the move would be enough to blunt plans by lawyers and supporters of Sharif to converge on Islamabad for a mass sit-in in front of Parliament on Monday.

Ishaq Dar, a Sharif lieutenant, said the appeal was a “good move.”

He said the court could suspended its previous decision, effectively reinstating the provincial government.

“Sense must prevail” in the face of Pakistan’s mounting economic problems and struggle against extremism, Dar told Dawn News television

Still, he said the party would not compromise on its support for the protests.

“There is no trade-off,” he insisted.

The government has vowed to prevent the protest in Islamabad, raising the likelihood of violent clashes that could cast the nuclear-armed country into turmoil just a year after democratic elections ended years of military rule.

Authorities have blocked the main boulevard leading to Parliament with metal shipping containers and say they also have to protect nearby foreign embassies. The area is already a high-security zone.

In another sign of strain on the pro-Western government, Information Minister Sherry Rehman announced her resignation from the Cabinet after the private Geo TV channel complained that cable TV companies had blocked its programming in several cities.

Geo accused Zardari of ordering the restrictions _ an allegation denied by his spokesman.

Rehman, who has often spoken in defense of media freedoms, didn’t explain her decision, and the channel appeared to be available again on Saturday in major cities.

Police have temporarily detained scores of activists across the country, including five people at a gathering of hundreds of lawyers and Sharif supporters Saturday in the central city of Multan.

“So far our attitude is soft, but we can change our strategy,” Ali Ahmad Kurd, the leader of the country’s lawyers’ movement, said in Quetta after authorities allegedly prevented him from boarding a plane to the eastern city of Lahore.

“When one path is blocked, God opens 100 others, and we will reach Lahore and then Islamabad,” said Kurd, whose road convoy was turned back by police a day earlier.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said the government put the army on notice Friday that troops might be needed to protect “sensitive areas” in Islamabad and elsewhere.

“When the situation deteriorates, gets out of hand of police, paramilitary (troops), only then the army is deployed,” Abbas told The Associated Press.

___

Associated Press reporters Munir Ahmad and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad and Khalid Tanveer in Multan contributed to this report.

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