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Pakistani Opposition Leader Defiant As Protests Continue

Supporters of Nawaz Sharif carry their party leaders' portraits during March 12 protest rally in Karachi

Supporters of Nawaz Sharif carry their party leaders' portraits during March 12 protest rally in Karachi

LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) -- Pakistani protesters clashed with police on March 15 as former prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif said the government had turned the country into a police state.

Sharif has thrown his support behind a protest campaign by anti-government lawyers that threatens to bring turmoil to Pakistan as the government struggles to stem militancy and to revive a flagging economy.

Several hundred protesters, many of them members of the Jamaat-e-Islami religious opposition party, threw stones at police outside the High Court in the city of Lahore, where Sharif had been due to address a rally.

Police responded with tear gas and lashed out with batons. Sharif said the protests against the government would go on.

"You have seen that the entire country has been turned into a police state. They have blocked all roads, they have used all sorts of unlawful tactics," Sharif told a throng of reporters gathered at the front step of his Lahore home.

"We will continue marching towards our destination. Sons and daughters, the time has come to take to the streets."

If the political crisis gets out of hand, the army could feel compelled to intervene, though most analysts say a military takeover is highly unlikely.

The United States is deeply worried that the crisis is a distraction to Pakistan's efforts to eliminate Taliban and Al-Qaeda enclaves on the Afghan border, vital to U.S. plans to stabilize Afghanistan and defeat Al-Qaeda.

Earlier, Sharif's party said he had been ordered detained at his home for three days. Police officer Babur Awan also said a detention order had been issued.

Police in riot gear virtually sealed off Sharif's house with road blocks on all approaches, but government officials denied he had been placed under house arrest.

"I categorically confirm no restraining orders, no arrest warrant, no house arrest," Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik told the BBC.

Another government official said Sharif had been placed under "protective security" for three days after he had refused options for addressing his supporters under government protection.

Malik said earlier security agencies had information "enemies of Pakistan" would launch suicide bomb attacks on the protest.

But Sharif said the government was acting illegally in order to stop the protest campaign. He later drove off in his bullet-proof vehicle to address protesters.

Parliament Sit-In

Police have detained hundreds of lawyers and opposition activists in a crackdown launched on March 11 to prevent their cross-country "long march" protest that is due to climax with a sit-in outside parliament in Islamabad on March 16.

Snuffing out protests with detentions and roadblocks, the government has also asked troops to be ready, if needed.

Top lawyer and protest organizer Aitzaz Ahsan was detained at his house in Lahore, an aide said.

Police sealed off a bar association in the city of Rawalpindi where lawyers were due to protest and they placed shipping containers on roads to block the way to nearby Islamabad.

But in a first step toward reconciliation with the opposition, the government said on March 14 it would seek a review of a Supreme Court ruling last month that barred the Sharifs from elected office. But his party rejected the move.

The Sharifs said Zardari was behind the ruling, which was based on old convictions they say were politically motivated.

The ruling nullified a by-election victory by Shahbaz Sharif and disqualified him from being chief minister of Punjab, the most populous and influential of Pakistan's provinces.

The Sharif party's government was thrown out of power in Punjab and Zardari imposed central rule there for two months.

The protesters' main demand is the reinstatement of former Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was dismissed in 2007 by then president and army chief Pervez Musharraf.

Zardari, widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, has refused to reinstate the judge, seeing him as a threat to his own position.

A senior official in Zardari's party said on March 14 the president was refusing to cave in to pressure from Sharif and his supporters in the media.

The official also dismissed talk of any "erosion" in support from the United States or the army. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke by telephone to Zardari and the Sharifs on March 14.