Anti-government protesters fought street battles with police in the Pakistani city of Lahore yesterday in clashes that deepened concern about the deteriorating situation in the country.
Hundreds of protesters, including lawyers and members of the Jamaat-e-Islami religious party, hurled stones at police outside the High Court in Lahore after former prime minister and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif called supporters onto the streets. Police responded with tear gas and baton charges.
"You have seen that the entire country has been turned into a police state. They have blocked all roads, they have used all sorts of unlawful tactics," Sharif told reporters on the front step of his Lahore home before the rally.
The protest campaign by anti-government lawyers and opposition parties threatens to bring more turmoil to Pakistan as the government struggles to combat Islamist militants and revive a flagging economy.
The United States is worried the crisis is a distraction from Pakistan's efforts to eliminate Taliban and Al Qaeda enclaves on the Afghan border, vital to US plans to stabilize Afghanistan and defeat Al Qaeda.
Earlier, Sharif's party said he had been ordered detained at his home for three days.
Police in riot gear sealed off Sharif's house with road blocks but government officials denied he had been placed under house arrest. One official said Sharif had been placed under "protective security" for three days.
Police have detained hundreds of lawyers and opposition activists in a crackdown to foil the nationwide protest that is due to climax with a sit-in outside parliament in Islamabad on Monday. The government has put troops on alert.
Police sealed off a lawyers' association office in Rawalpindi where lawyers were due to protest, and placed shipping containers on roads to block the way to Islamabad.
The lawyers' main demand is the reinstatement of former Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was dismissed in 2007 by then president and army chief Pervez Musharraf.
President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, has refused to reinstate the judge, seeing him as a threat to his own position.
An official in Zardari's party said on Saturday the president was refusing to cave in to pressure from Sharif, who was trying to overturn an election mandate by mob rule.
In a step toward reconciliation with the opposition, the government said on Saturday it would seek a review of a Supreme Court ruling last month that barred Sharif and his brother from office.