- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

KARACHI, Pakistan

Club-swinging police blocked the way out of Pakistan’s biggest city Thursday, scattering hundreds of demonstrators as the government sought to contain a protest movement that is emerging as a major challenge to its shaky one-year rule.

Also Thursday, a suspected U.S. missile strike killed seven people in northwestern Pakistan, a government official and a witness said.

With anti-government activists vowing to press ahead, the U.S. stepped up efforts to mediate a solution to the crisis, which threatens to undermine its goal of getting nuclear-armed Pakistan to do more in fighting al Qaeda and Taliban militants along the border with Afghanistan.

Richard C. Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, spoke by phone to President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, while U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson met with opposition leader Nawaz Sharif.

State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood said the U.S. envoys stressed that Washington wants to see “that violence be avoided and that any impediments to peaceful and democratic activities not be put in place.”

“We’re continuing to watch the situation … and we will continue to engage the government of Pakistan in discussions, as well as other parties, to try to make sure that what transpires in Pakistan is dealt with within the content of Pakistan’s constitution,” Mr. Wood said.

There were no signs of any breakthrough to calm political squabbling that is looking a lot like the unrest that preceded the removal of former military ruler Pervez Musharraf last year.

Activist lawyers are demanding Mr. Zardari fulfill a pledge to reinstate judges fired by Mr. Musharraf, a general who ousted Mr. Sharif as prime minister in a 1999 coup. But the protest movement heated up last month when the Supreme Court banned Mr. Sharif and his brother from elected office.

After the ruling, the federal government dismissed the Punjab provincial administration led by Mr. Sharif’s brother, stoking anger in Pakistan’s most populous region and putting the pair and their supporters on a collision course with Mr. Zardari.

The lawyers’ movement, Mr. Sharif’s party and other small political groupings called a “long march” to begin Thursday across the country, with groups of protesters planning to converge on the parliament building in Islamabad on Monday and begin a sit-in.

Government officials said they would allow protesters only to gather in a park close to the capital, vowing to keep them from massing outside parliament or in other downtown areas. Officials banned protests in much of the country Wednesday and detained more than 360 activists.

On Thursday, several hundred protesters in Karachi, the country’s largest city, set off for Islamabad in a convoy of cars, buses and motorbikes. They were stopped by police trucks blocking the highway out of the city, and officers with clubs moved in to arrest the leaders, engaging in brief scuffles.

While some protesters sped back into Karachi, several people sat on the road chanting “Zardari is a traitor! Zardari is a dog!” before being arrested. After clearing the highway, police dragged several protesters from a nearby restaurant and a mosque.

“Why is a democratic government crushing a peaceful protest?” asked Naeem Qureshi, secretary-general of Karachi Bar Association. “There is no difference between it and a martial law regime.”

Another group of several hundred demonstrators departed the southwestern city of Quetta, and had not been stopped by nightfall. Protests are expected to gather strength as people in Punjab attempt to set off for the capital over the weekend.

There were signs the crisis was causing cracks in the ruling party, which rose to power on a wave of sympathy votes following the assassination of Mr. Zardari’s wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, by suspected Islamic militants before the 2008 elections.

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