Hundreds arrested as Pakistan bids to keep lid on unrest

PAKISTAN arrested hundreds of opposition activists yesterday and banned protests in two regions ahead of a planned rally outside parliament that could weaken the already shaky rule of the country's government.

The crackdown by police and intelligence agencies is likely to damage the democratic credentials of the ruling party of president Asif Ali Zardari and stoke further anger at the government's year-old rule. The opposition, along with lawyers spearheading the planned protest, vowed to press on.

"I cannot rest when Pakistan is being taken toward disastrous circumstances," Nawaz Sharif, head of the largest opposition party, told several thousand supporters at a rally in North West Frontier Province. "We cannot compromise when all institutions are ruined and the system is on the verge of collapse."

The upheaval comes as the country is grappling to contain surging violence by al-Qaeda and the Taleban and mend an economy that functions only because of support from international lenders.

Pakistan's lawyers, Mr Sharif's party and two smaller groups are demanding Mr Zardari fulfil a pledge to reinstate a group of judges sacked by former president Pervez Musharraf in 2007. Mr Zardari is refusing to do so, apparently fearing they could limit his power or reopen corruption cases against him.

Last month, the Supreme Court banned Mr Sharif and his brother from elected office, enraging their followers.

The protesters have vowed to gather in cities around the country today before leaving for the capital, Islamabad, where they plan to stage a sit-in at the parliament building until their demands are met.

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