Pakistan minister condemns protests as 'revolt against state'

AFP , Tuesday 2 Sep 2014

Police use tear gas to disperse protesters in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014 (Photo: AP)

Pakistan's interior minister Tuesday slammed violent anti-government protests as a "revolt against the state" as lawmakers met to discuss the political crisis shaking Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Parliament met for an emergency session after three days of clashes between police and club-wielding demonstrators demanding Sharif's resignation.

Sharif has resisted calls for him to go but protest leaders Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri have refused to back down, raising political tensions to fever pitch.

Violence erupted on Saturday when Khan and Qadri ordered their followers to storm the prime minister's official residence, with protesters throwing rocks at police who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

There were further clashes on Sunday and Monday, when activists armed with bamboo batons briefly seized control of the state broadcaster.

The protests to oust Sharif have disrupted life in the normally sleepy capital since August 15 and raised the spectre of military intervention in a country ruled for half its history by the army.

Khan, who leads an opposition party, claims the May 2013 election that swept Sharif to power in a landslide was rigged. Qadri, a populist cleric, says the current political system is corrupt and must be swept away entirely.

But the movements have not energised much widespread support beyond Khan and Qadri's core followers. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said the country should not be held to ransom by a few thousand people.

"This is not a protest or a political gathering. This is a revolt against Pakistan -- this is a revolt against the state institutions," he told lawmakers.

Defence minister Khawaja Asif told AFP late on Monday that a cross-party negotiation team was set to approach the protest groups and try to end the standoff, which has seen three people killed and hundreds injured in clashes.

The powerful military has called for a swift and peaceful political solution but efforts to negotiate a way out have so far failed.

Many analysts have suggested the military may have played a role in the protest movements, though the army has denied this.

Sharif's relationship with the military has been problematic over the years -- his last term as PM ended in a coup led by then-army chief General Pervez Musharraf in 1999.

Since his election last year Sharif is thought to have angered the military by pursuing treason charges against Musharraf and seeking to warm ties with perennial rival India.

The spectre of military domination by Pakistan's giant neighbour has long been used as part of the justification for the army's influence and large budget.

The military is usually treated respectfully in Pakistani media, but two major dailies on Tuesday published surprisingly forthright editorials criticising its handling of the current crisis.

Dawn, Pakistan's oldest English-language paper, said the army's failure clearly to support the elected government had destroyed its "carefully constructed veneer of neutrality".

"Staggeringly, the army has 'advised' the government not to use force against violent protesters," Dawn wrote.

"It's as if the army is unaware -- rather, unwilling -- to acknowledge the constitutional scheme of things: it is the government that is supposed to give orders to the army, not the other way around."

The Nation said military commanders were "issuing public advisories to the elected government, which should be simply unacceptable".

The protest site in Islamabad's high-security "red zone" was quiet on Tuesday morning, with paramilitary Rangers guarding the parliament building.

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