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Pakistan protests keep pressure on PM Nawaz Sharif to step down

Reuters - August 16, 2014

Katharine Houreld and Syed Raza Hassan, Islamabad The leaders of two Pakistani protest movements vowed on Saturday to keep their protests alive until Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resigns, after thousands entered the country's capital in the biggest challenge yet to the 15-month-old civilian government.

"I will not leave here until I have got real freedom for the country," former cricket star Imran Khan, who heads the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, told thousands of supporters who had followed him into Islamabad the day before. "Decide, Nawaz Sharif! Resign and announce elections."

Populist cleric Tahir ul-Qadri, who has spearheaded a separate protest march to the capital, planned to stage a sit-in with his followers and deliver a speech around midday.

"Dr Qadri will present the 'Demands of Revolution March 2014', which includes the stepping down of Nawaz Sharif and his government and his immediate arrest," said Qadri's spokesman, Shahid Mursaleen.

The unrest raised questions about Pakistan's stability, at a time when the nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people was waging an offensive against Pakistani Taliban militants and when the influence of anti-Western and sectarian groups was growing.

On Friday, a stone-throwing mob attacked Mr Khan's convoy as he led supporters through the eastern city of Gujranwala. Gunshots were fired but Mr Khan was not injured, his spokeswoman said. The government said there was no shooting, and police arrested 16 activists from the ruling party.

In Islamabad, authorities blocked roads with shipping containers and barbed wire to control the marches, and riot police had been out in force.

"We think Imran Khan will make a better country for the youth," said 25-year-old Muhammad Taraki at Mr Khan's rally point. "I have a bachelor's degree, but I cannot get a job."

Some members of Mr Sharif's party had suggested the protests were secretly backed by elements in the military, which had had an uneasy relationship with him.

To what extent Mr Khan and Dr Qadri could destabilise the government was likely to depend on the stance taken by the armed forces, which had a long history of mounting coups.

Few people feared there would be a coup, but many officials through the threat of unrest would increase the military's hold over the government.

The military had been frustrated with the government, in particular over the prosecution of former army chief and president Pervez Musharraf for treason.

There had been disagreement, too, between the government and the army on how to handle the Taliban. The government insisted on peace talks but eventually the army launched an offensive.

The government was also struggling to overcome power shortages, high unemployment and spiralling crime, the legacy of decades of corruption and neglect. Anger over the economy meant the protests appealed to many disillusioned young Pakistanis.

Source: http://www.smh.com.au/world/pakistan-protests-keep-pressure-on-pm-nawaz-sharif-to-step-down-20140816-104xjp.html.

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