ISLAMABAD // Pakistani authorities placed opposition leader Nawaz Sharif under house arrest today to stop him from taking part in a major anti-government rally, a spokesman said. The move against the former prime minister 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 the US-backed president Asif Ali Zardari.
The arrest order came hours after the government announced its first major concession in the month-long political crisis by pledging to appeal a disputed court ruling against Mr Sharif and his brother. Mr Sharif's spokesman Pervez Rasheed said hundreds of police surrounded his house today in the eastern city of Lahore. He said officers showed Mr Sharif aides a detention order stipulating Mr Sharif and his politician brother Shahbaz Sharif were to be placed under house arrest for three days. Mr Shahbaz was not at home, said Mr Rasheed.
There was no immediate word from Pakistani authorities. Mr Zardari and Mr 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 neighbouring Afghanistan. Suspected militants attacked a transport terminal in northwestern Pakistan used to supply Nato troops in Afghanistan before dawn today and torched dozens of containers and military vehicles, including Humvees, police said.
Mr Sharif yesterday urged his supporters to go ahead with the protests, even as the government insisted it would enforce a ban, put troops on alert and warned the demonstration could be targeted by militant bombers. "This is a flood of people. This flood will break all hurdles. This flood will, God willing, reach its destination," Mr Sharif told cheering party workers in Lahore. Pakistan lurched back toward turmoil last month when the Supreme Court disqualified Mr Sharif and his brother from elected office, over convictions dating back to an earlier chapter in Pakistan's often vindictive political history.
Mr Zardari compounded the crisis by dismissing the Sharifs' administration in Punjab, Pakistan's biggest and richest province. Mr 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. Mr Zardari refuses to reinstate a group of judges, including the former Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, fired by the former military leader Pervez Musharraf.
Many observers suspect Mr Zardari fears the judges could challenge the legality of his rule and a pact signed by Mr Musharraf that quashed long-standing corruption charges against him and his wife, the slain former leader Benazir Bhutto. Sceptics suspect Mr Sharif of hoping to force early elections. *AP