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Pakistan Cracks Down On Eve Of 'Long March'

Supporters of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif protest against the Supreme Court verdict in Islamabad.
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -- Authorities in two Pakistani provinces have banned protests and police began rounding up activists, officials said, a day before a rally by lawyers that could challenge the year-old government.

Antigovernment lawyers and opposition parties plan to launch a cross-country protest motor convoy, known as a long march, on March 12.

"It has been done to maintain law and order, so from now there's a ban on all sorts of processions, protests and congregations for one month," Farhan Aziz Khawaja, a senior interior department official in Punjab Province, told Reuters.

Sindh Province banned protests for 15 days, a top official there said.

Despite the bans, protesters vowed to press ahead with their plans peacefully. They are pushing for the reappointment of a former Supreme Court chief justice who then-army chief and President Pervez Musharraf dismissed in 2007.

The lawyers, in league with opposition parties who can mobilize their supporters, pose a significant challenge to President Asif Ali Zardari, who has refused to reappoint the former chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry.

The protesters' convoy of cars and buses is due to set off on March 12 in the southern provinces of Sindh and Baluchistan and reach Punjab on March 13. They aim to begin a sit-in outside parliament in the capital, Islamabad, on March 16.

The protest is one more problem for a civilian government led by Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) that took power a year ago and is struggling with economic and security crises.

It comes as the nuclear-armed U.S. ally's two main parties are at loggerheads over a Supreme Court ruling last month that effectively barred former Prime Minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz, from contesting elections.

Nawaz Sharif says Zardari was behind the ruling and he has thrown his support behind the protest.

Political worry has weighed on financial markets in recent days, although stocks were flat on March 11.


Tariq Mehmud, a senior lawyer and protest organizer, said the ban on protests would not affect their plans.

"It seems the government is determined to stop the long march.... Our plan is intact. Let's see what happens," he said.

Mehmud said police had turned up at his home in Islamabad before dawn aiming to detain him, but he managed to slip away. Another protest organizer, Aitzaz Ahsan, said police had come to his home but he was in hiding.

Raja Zafar-ul-Haq, chairman of Sharif's party, said police had put him under house arrest at his Islamabad home.

"I'm told I have been detained under the maintenance of public order law," he told Reuters by telephone.

Siddiq-ul-Farooq, a spokesman for Sharif's party, said scores of their workers had been detained across Punjab.

"We will remain peaceful and will peacefully defy the ban on the long march," Farooq said.

Sharif was in Northwest Frontier Province, where he was due to address a rally, while Shahbaz Sharif was due to address a rally in Punjab, party officials said.

Authorities routinely detain opposition leaders and activists in an effort to disrupt protests. Detainees are freed after tension eases.

The government has threatened to prosecute him for sedition if violence erupts during the protest. It has also said the rally will not be allowed into central Islamabad, but organizers can use open ground on the city's outskirts.

Police were seen preparing shipping containers, which are used to block roads, in the city of Rawalpindi, adjacent to Islamabad, witnesses said.