- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

ISLAMABAD (AP) - The Pakistan army says its troops are on standby ahead of a planned mass demonstration by opposition parties and lawyers in the capital.

The government has vowed to prevent protesters from staging a sit-in in front of Parliament in Islamabad, raising fears of violence.

Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said Saturday the government asked the military the day before to ready troops.

Abbas said the soldiers could be deployed if police and paramilitary forces cannot control the situation. He said the troops could be used to protect “sensitive areas” in Islamabad and other locations.

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

ISLAMABAD (AP) _ Pakistan’s president urged opposition parties Saturday to negotiate an end to the country’s political crisis while vowing to maintain law and order “at all cost” in the face of anti-government protests.

The rift with opponents led by former premier Nawaz Sharif has added to doubts about the stability of the year-old government and its ability to help the West counter the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Sharif has thrown his weight behind mass demonstrations that plan to converge on the capital, Islamabad, on Monday. The government has banned the rallies, raising fears of violence.

Police detained five people at a gathering of lawyers and Sharif supporters Saturday in the central city of Multan.

“So far our attitude is soft, but we can change our strategy,” said Ali Ahmad Kurd, leader of the country’s activist lawyers, 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 on Friday.

The crisis stems from President Asif Ali Zardari’s refusal to accept demands from lawyers and an array of political parties that he reinstate a group of judges fired by his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf.

It deepened last month when the Supreme Court banned Sharif and his brother from elected office. Zardari then dismissed the government of Punjab province, Pakistan’s largest, which had been led by Shahbaz Sharif.

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

U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson met with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani late Friday, Gilani’s office said, shortly before the premier huddled with Zardari and other officials.

After talks that dragged into the early hours of Saturday, the government decided to try to defuse the tension through dialogue, a presidential statement said.

“The meeting reiterated the offer to the political forces in the country to negotiate with the government” on implementing democratic reform, the statement said.

However, it didn’t indicate what concessions the government could make and made clear that, if the offer was rejected, a nationwide crackdown to thwart the protests would continue.

“The government will protect the lives and property of the citizens and maintain law and order at all cost” while staying within the bounds of the constitution, it said.

The government says it cannot allow mass demonstrations in the capital because of the threat of a terrorist attack. Authorities have blocked the main boulevard leading to Parliament with metal shipping containers and have detained scores of activists to hamper the protests, which began Thursday.

The private Geo TV channel complained Saturday that cable TV companies had blocked transmission of its coverage of the crisis in several cities.

Geo, which suffered similar harassment under Musharraf, accused Zardari of ordering the restrictions because it was “reminding the president (of) his past promises” to restore the judiciary.

Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar called the allegation “absolutely incorrect.” The channel appeared to be available Saturday in major cities.

___

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

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