- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

ISLAMABAD (AP) - Pakistan’s government says it will appeal a court ruling against two opposition leaders that triggered a deepening political crisis.

Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar says the government made the decision Saturday and hopes it will ease political tension ahead of planned mass protests in the capital on Monday.

He says the appeal will probably be filed with the Supreme Court next week.

Last month the Supreme Court disqualified former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother from elected office, prompting a crisis that could destabilize the pro-Western government and erode its ability to fight Islamist extremism.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

ISLAMABAD (AP) _ Pakistan’s government put the army on alert ahead of planned opposition protests in the capital, the military said Saturday, as the U.S. called for talks to end a crisis endangering the country’s efforts against Islamist extremism.

In another sign of strain on the pro-Western government, a prominent Cabinet minister tendered her resignation after a television station complained its coverage of the standoff was curbed.

Authorities have vowed to prevent lawyers and supporters of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif from converging on Islamabad for a mass sit-in in front of Parliament on Monday, arguing it will paralyze the administration and present a target for terrorists.

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

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

But protest leaders are vowing to defy the clampdown, 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.

In response, the government alerted the army. 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.

Information Minister Sherry Rehman announced her resignation from the Cabinet on Saturday 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 his spokesman Farhatullah Babar said was “absolutely incorrect.”

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.

Pakistan’s lawyers are mobilizing against Zardari’s refusal to reinstate a group of judges, including the former Supreme Court chief justice, fired by former military leader Pervez Musharraf.

Sharif, widely viewed as the country’s most popular politician, threw his weight behind the already planned protest last month when the Supreme Court banned him and his brother Shahbaz from elected office.

Zardari then dismissed the Punjab provincial administration, which had been led by Shahbaz Sharif and was his party’s only foothold in Pakistan’s patronage-based political system.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said the government put the army on notice on Friday that an unspecified number of 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.

Washington, which wants Pakistan to focus on the threat from the Taliban and al-Qaida to help boost the faltering war effort in Afghanistan, has been pressing all sides to resolve their differences.

The U.S. ambassador met with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani shortly before Gilani huddled with the president and other officials for talks that dragged into early Saturday.

A presidential statement said the government decided to try to defuse the tension through dialogue. It didn’t indicate what concessions the government could make.

However, there have been suggestions that officials are considering letting Sharif’s party return to power in Punjab, where no party holds an outright majority in the suspended provincial assembly.

A formerly pro-Musharraf party, which holds the balance of power in Punjab, ruled out taking sides in the feud on Saturday, calling for all three to form a unity government in the region.

___

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

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