ISLAMABAD Saturday (AP) - Tens of thousands of protesters swarmed into Pakistan's capital Friday for a raucous, sweat-soaked rally led by lawyers demanding the reinstatement of judges and the ouster of President Pervez Musharraf.
The gathering, one of the largest ever in Islamabad, threatened to widen a rift within the governing coalition. But some analysts said it could prod the partners to find a way to restore the justices and hasten the exit of the unpopular U.S.-backed president.
After about 30 hours on the road, senior lawyers, joined by politicians, took to a stage atop shipping containers a few hundred yards (meters) from Pakistan's floodlit Parliament. They addressed a crowd of about 20,000 people early today.
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Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif unleashed a blistering attack on Musharraf, demanding he be put on trial and ''held accountable'' for his eight and a half years in power.
''Listen Pervez Musharraf! The nation has given its verdict against you. Listen Musharraf to what the nation is saying and what the nation is demanding!'' Sharif said, drawing a response of ''Hang Musharraf!'' from the crowd.
The biggest contingent was in a convoy of hundreds of vehicles that left the eastern city of Lahore on Thursday evening carrying flag-waving activists from anti-Musharraf parties and black-suited attorneys on the final leg of a grand procession that began from the corners of Pakistan early this week.
People massed in at towns along the Grand Trunk Road as the ''Long March'' crawled toward Islamabad on a hot, humid day. Protesters shouted, ''Go, Musharraf, go!''
Police estimated 40,000 had joined the procession at its height. Many more watched from the roadside.
''All of Pakistan's problems are because one man was making all the decisions,'' said Omar Khan, a 39-year-old hospital orderly. ''I am not interested in party politics. Just the restoration of the judiciary and rule of law.''
The rally marked the return to political center-stage of lawyers whose protests undermined Musharraf's grip on power last year. They rubbed shoulders with supporters of hard-line Islamic parties that boycotted February elections that swept the former army strongman's supporters out of control in Parliament. The show of support for the restoration of judges will buffet the government as it grapples with high food prices, power shortages and other economic problems as well as Western pressure to tackle Islamic militant groups along the western border with Afghanistan.
The rally drew many ordinary citizens who support the cause of establishing the kind of independent judiciary that has eluded Pakistan during a tumultuous 60-year history.
Authorities declared the government district and a compound housing foreign embassies off-limits to the protesters. Last week, a suicide car bomb killed six people outside the Danish Embassy. Coils of barbed wire and hundreds of police were deployed to channel visitors through security checks. Helicopters circled overhead.
As he rode atop a truck into the city, lawyer leader Aitzaz Ahsan said the scale of the rally should ''open the rulers' eyes'' about the strength of support for an independent judiciary.
''There will be no closure of this issue until the fearless, independent judges are reinstated,'' he said. Ahsan, however, did not support calls from a group of young protesters to stage a sit-in outside Parliament to press their demand and eventually urged people to go home.