Pakistan seals capital

Police hem in protesters planning to storm Islamabad

MULTAN, Pakistan, March 14, (AFP) - Pakistan sealed off city exits to activists trying to march on the capital and stopped a key lawyer from boarding a flight today, widening a crackdown on protests that has sparked turmoil.

President Asif Ali Zardari, whose popularity ratings are at rock bottom, is locked in a standoff with the main opposition leader Nawaz Sharif over demands that he reinstate judges sacked by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

A vendor walks past a barricade of containers erected by the authorities in front of President’s House in Islamabad on March 14, 2009. Pakistan sealed off city exits to activists trying to march on the capital and stopped a key lawyer from boarding a flight, widening a crackdown on protests that have sparked turmoil. AFP

Opposition activists and lawyers have called on hundreds of thousands of protesters to march on the capital Islamabad by Monday, but the authorities have blockaded activists, banned protests and detained hundreds.

The turmoil could not come at a worse time for the nuclear-armed Muslim nation, a central front in US President Barack Obama's fight against Islamist militancy, and locked in a wave of Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked violence.

Several hundred party workers from Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N and black suited lawyers marched down empty streets in Multan, a city in Pakistan's strategically important Punjab political heartland, waving flags and slamming Zardari.

"We will go with lawyers to Islamabad by any means possible," declared Maimoona Hashmi, a veiled lawmaker from the national parliament. Shops were shuttered and streets empty of traffic, as protesters, followed by police vans, streamed towards exit points barricaded with shipping containers to stop them leaving.

"We have to stop the lawyers and others because they are violating the law," senior police official Karamat Ali told AFP.

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