Pakistan's main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif defied house arrest today and vowed to lead a mass protest march on the capital as police fired tear gas and manhandled activists into prison vans. The former prime minister, who has emerged as the country's most popular political leader, has joined forces with lawyers pushing for the President Asif Ali Zardari to reinstate judges deposed by ex-military ruler Pervez Musharraf.
Mr Sharif, who was barred from running for office by the Supreme Court on February 25, has been the main figurehead for a mass anti-government protest scheduled to march from the eastern city of Lahore to Islamabad today. "We don't accept this decision. The house arrest is illegal and immoral. All these decisions are unconstitutional," he told a crowd. "Come and join me. I am leaving the house. The time has come to march hand in hand," said Mr Sharif.
His SUV inched out of the compound gates in a convoy with security vans, accompanied by private guards and hundreds of supporters, who punched their fists in the air as they streamed through the streets. Police were not immediately reachable for comment, but said earlier that Mr Sharif was under a three-day house arrest at his Lahore home, and was not allowed to leave the building. Facing the worst political crisis of his rule, the President Mr Zardari has ordered a countrywide crackdown, banning protests, forcibly detaining activists and blocking provincial borders in a move that has provoked wide concern in the West.
Riot police earlier fired tear gas in General Post Office Square, where Mr Sharif said he was heading to join the crowd, forcing demonstrators to run for cover, television footage showed. Another group of protesters was baton-charged and more than a dozen people were bundled into prison vans near Mr Sharif's home, where more than 500 people chanted "Death to Zardari" and "Long live Nawaz Sharif". Police said about 200 activists were seized in the city, where the leader of the lawyers' struggle Aitzaz Ahsan, a former cabinet minister, was also detained in a bid to break up plans to march on Islamabad.
Mr Zardari, widower of assassinated former premier Benazir Bhutto, has come under huge US pressure to end the standoff. Late Saturday, he held out concessions - vowing to appeal the court ruling that barred Mr Sharif from office and pledging the "restoration of judges would be resolved" in accordance with the principles of the Charter of Democracy. That document, signed by Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari's wife in 2006 promised to restore democracy, avoid confrontation and take the military out of politics. *AFP