Pakistan deploys forces to avert violence
KARACHI, Pakistan – Authorities marshaled 15,000 security forces in Pakistan’s largest city Friday, fearing clashes during rival protests by opponents of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and a pro-government party with a history of violence.Government opponents hope to hold their biggest demonstration yet Saturday against Musharraf’s decision to suspend the head of the Supreme Court two months ago, a move that has plunged Pakistan into deepening political turmoil.The Mutahida Qami Movement, a pro-government party with a support base in Karachi, has announced it will hold a counter-rally less than a mile away. In the 1990s, scores of MQM activists were arrested for allegedly kidnapping dozens of their rivals and attacking security forces. Party activists are still heavily armed, but critics say they enjoy impunity as part of Musharraf’s government.”If something happens to the chief justice, or any of his supporters in Karachi or elsewhere, the government alone would be responsible for it,” said Farhatullah Babar, spokesman for the main opposition Pakistan Peoples Party.Opponents accuse Musharraf of trying to sideline the independent-minded Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry in case of legal challenges to his plan to seek a new five-year term in elections this fall.Musharraf, a key U.S. ally who took power in a bloodless 1999 coup, denies Chaudhry’s suspension was politically motivated, saying there was serious evidence that the judge abused his position.Opposition groups have joined thousands of lawyers in demonstrations around the country over the past month to demand Chaudhry’s reinstatement, sometimes skirmishing with police. Chaudhry, who was expected to address Saturday’s demonstration, drew nearly 20,000 sympathizers at a protest last weekend in the eastern city of Lahore.MQM leader Farooq Sattar said the group’s members “know our responsibility and will remain peaceful. We have asked our workers not to allow themselves to be provoked, even if the opposition tries to create a problem.”About 15,000 police and paramilitary rangers will be deployed in Karachi, a city of 15 million people, said Ghulam Muhammed Mohtarem, home secretary of Sindh province. The security forces will be at the airport for Chaudhry’s arrival, at the demonstration sites and along the routes to be used by the judge and protesters.”We have taken all possible security measures in view of the highly charged atmosphere,” Mohtarem said.Musharraf was set to address his own rally in Islamabad on Saturday, with at least 300,000 people expected to attend, said Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azeem Khan. Organizers barricaded roads in the capital’s government district, where the president was due to speak.The judicial crisis appears to have weakened Musharaf politically.Opposition parties argue Musharraf would breach the constitution if he does not step down as army chief before staying on for another term. His position as head of the army, however, has been the main source of his power and of his utility to the U.S. in its campaign against terrorism.Some Pakistanis fear that if the crisis turns violent, Musharaf could declare a state of emergency and postpone the elections.On Thursday, gunmen fired shots at the Karachi home of one of Chaudhry’s lawyers, narrowly missing his teenage daughter.—-Associated Press Writer Munir Ahmad in Islamabad contributed to this report.
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