Qadri thunders, Pak govt shows arrest warrant

International
REZAUL H LASKAR & M ZULQERNAIN

Thousands of protesters led by Barelvi cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri rallied in Pakistan's capital for the third straight day, giving the government until Wednesday night to resign and dissolve the national and provincial assemblies.

The government hit back by issuing warrants to arrest Qadri and 70 others for attacking police, and announced it was determined to complete its five-year term and hold elections only by May.

The government also announced that the Supreme Court's orders to arrest Prime Minister Raja Parvez Ashraf would be "honoured" and "acted upon", but only after procudures had been followed. Sources said there was no likelihood of Ashraf being arrested soon.

In a boost to the government, a meeting of Pakistan's opposition, led by Nawaz Sharif's PML (N), while criticising the PPP-led regime and demanding a timeline for elections, rejected Qadri's demands and vowed to fight attempts to derail democracy.

"We decided that the government should, without any delay, announce a schedule for the election and a caretaker government," Sharif told reporters after the 20-party meeting in Lahore. "Any change will take place only through free and fair elections. We will stop any unconstitutional step that leads to anarchy... (and) any attempt to keep the people away from exercising their right to vote."

In Islamabad, Qadri, camping with his supporters near the heavily barricaded parliament building, delivered his demands in a rambling, three-hour speech loaded with religious imagery, and warned the PPP and PML (N) from striking a deal on the caretaker government.

"The government should decide by tonight... This so-called democratic government will end today or tomorrow, God willing...," he said.

Despite this being the largest demonstration in Islamabad in several years, TV networks expressed scepticism about Qadri's claim that he had the support of "millions". The crowd on Jinnah Avenue has been gradually thinning since Tuesday, and television pictures showed large gaps in the throng on Wednesday.

At a news conference, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said, "There are a few days left for the completion of the term (of the government). All the parties and real stakeholders have agreed that (the national and provincial) assemblies will complete their term on March 16... On that day, the assemblies will be dissolved automatically (and) ... the election will be held in time (within two months)."

The elections were expected to be held between May 5 and 15, Kaira said.

On the Supreme Court's order to arrest Prime Minister Ashraf, Kaira said, "The government of Pakistan is acting according to the law and what the Supreme Court has said will be acted upon. The judgment of the Supreme Court will be honoured."

However he clarified that several procedures would have to be completed by the National Accountability Bureau before an accountability or anti-corruption court can issue an arrest warrant.

Sources in the government said the NAB was unlikely to act immediately. The court's order had set no deadline.

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