Sunday, March 15, 2009

Riot police clash with mobs

LAHORE (Pakistan) - PAKISTAN'S main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif defied house arrest on Sunday, ramping up his challenge to the government, as riot police clashed with stone-throwing mobs in street battles.

The former premier, now the most popular political leader in the country, led about 10,000 supporters in a banned protest in Lahore, from where he has urged thousands of activists to march on the capital Islamabad by Monday.

Mr Sharif, locked in a standoff with President Asif Ali Zardari since the Supreme Court on Feb 25 barred him from running for office, is demanding the government reinstate judges deposed by ex-military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

'We don't accept this decision. The house arrest is illegal and immoral. All these decisions are unconstitutional,' he told a crowd after breaking his house arrest order.

'Come and join me. I am leaving the house. The time has come to march hand in hand.'

In the most violent scenes since the crisis began, riot police wearing body armour baton-charged protesters and fired tear gas. Witnesses said more than a dozen people were wounded.

'The main GPO Square looked like a battleground. I saw at least two ambulances ferrying casualties to the hospital,' said resident Hanif Goraya, as Sharif supporters brought the city centre to a standstill.

'Police fired scores of shells, inside and outside the Lahore High Court building. A shell hit my left thigh, I received stitches. The injured include lawyers, political workers and some police officials,' he said.

At one point, crowds surged ahead of Mr Sharif's convoy to mob two public transport buses blocking the route, forcing drivers to rescue the vehicles from being set alight, as a large police presence melted away.

His SUV inched through the streets and down The Mall of Lahore, in a convoy of security vans, accompanied by private guards and supporters perched in vehicles and streaming behind on foot, said an AFP reporter. -- AFP

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