- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani authorities placed opposition leader Nawaz Sharif under house arrest Sunday to stop him from taking part in a major anti-government rally, a spokesman said.

The move against former Prime Minister Sharif shows Pakistan’s determination to squelch Monday’s rally in the capital Islamabad but risks igniting anger among his supporters. It will also likely damage the democratic credentials of the one-year-old government led by U.S.-backed President Asif Ali Zardari.

The arrest order came hours after the government announced its first major concession in the monthlong political crisis by pledging to appeal a disputed court ruling against Sharif and his brother.

Sharif’s spokesman Pervez Rasheed said hundreds of police surrounded his house Sunday in the eastern city of Lahore.

He said officers showed Sharif aides a detention order stipulating Sharif and his politician brother Shahbaz Sharif were to be placed under house arrest for three days. Shahbaz was not at home, said Rasheed.

There was no immediate word from Pakistani authorities.

Zardari and Sharif are under increasing pressure to reach a settlement from the United States, 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.

Sharif vowed Saturday to go ahead with the protests, even as the government insisted it would enforce a ban, put troops on alert and warned terrorists could bomb the demonstration.

“This is a flood of people. This flood will break all hurdles. This flood will, God willing, reach its destination,” Sharif told cheering party workers in Lahore.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan lurched back toward turmoil last month when the Supreme Court disqualified Sharif and his brother from elected office, over convictions dating back to an earlier chapter in Pakistan’s often vindictive 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 activist lawyers to stage a mass sit-in Monday in front of Parliament in Islamabad to demand an independent 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.

Sharif said he and his supporters would join lawyers in Lahore on Sunday before driving in convoys toward Islamabad.

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