- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

LAHORE, PAKISTAN (AP) - Police put opposition leader Nawaz Sharif under house arrest Sunday to stop him from leading anti-government protests, his spokesman said, fanning a political crisis that has alarmed the United States about Pakistan’s ability to fend off growing Islamist violence.

Sharif aides said hundreds of police surrounded his residence in the eastern city of Lahore before dawn on Sunday and detained about 250 of his supporters gathered outside.

Officers showed party officials an order stipulating Sharif and his politician brother Shahbaz were to be placed under house arrest for three days, party spokesman Pervaiz Rasheed said.

Shahbaz and a host of other protest leaders went underground to dodge similar orders. Rao Iftikhar, a senior government official, said the list of those facing detention included the head of Pakistan’s main Islamist party and a leader of its activist lawyers movement.

Lawyers and Sharif supporters had planned to gather Sunday near Lahore’s main court complex before heading toward Islamabad.

To thwart them, authorities parked trucks across major roads on the edge of the city and riot police took up positions outside the railway station and government buildings.

Officers scuffled briefly with some protesters waving Sharif party flags as they tried to reach the area, where scores of lawyers had spent the night inside the complex.

Television images also showed police commandos wearing flak jackets and armed with assault rifles apparently searching for Shahbaz in Rawalpindi, a city just south of the capital.

Shahbaz, speaking to Geo television by phone, appealed to ordinary Pakistanis to come out onto the streets.

“(President Asif Ali) Zardari has put the nation into this deep crisis by breaking his promises,” he said. “These fascist tactics cannot stop the masses who want justice.”

Zardari and Sharif are under pressure to reach a settlement from Washington, which fears the government is already bogged down in power struggles when it needs to focus on economic problems as well as Western demands for more help with the faltering war effort in neighboring Afghanistan.

Suspected militants attacked a transport terminal in northwestern Pakistan used to supply NATO troops in Afghanistan before dawn on Sunday and torched dozens of containers and military vehicles, including Humvees, police said.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan lurched back toward turmoil last month when the Supreme Court disqualified the Sharif brothers from elected office, over convictions dating back to an earlier chapter in Pakistan’s turbulent political history.

Zardari compounded the crisis by dismissing the Sharifs’ administration in Punjab, Pakistan’s biggest and richest province.

Sharif then threw his support behind plans by lawyers to stage an indefinite sit-in Monday in front of Parliament in Islamabad to demand an independent judiciary.

On Saturday, after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to both Zardari and Nawaz Sharif by telephone, the government announced it would file an appeal against the disputed Supreme court ruling in the coming days.

Sharif’s party welcomed the move but said they wouldn’t compromise on demands for a shake-up of the judiciary.

Zardari refuses to reinstate a group of judges, including the former Supreme Court chief justice, fired by former military leader Pervez Musharraf.

Many observers suspect Zardari fears the judges could challenge the legality of his rule and a pact signed by Musharraf that quashed long-standing corruption charges against him and his wife, slain former leader Benazir Bhutto.

Skeptics suspect Sharif of hoping to force early elections, though critics warn he could end up prompting army intervention just a year after democratic elections ended former army chief Musharraf’s long domination.

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