Thousands descend on Pak capital, coup fears loom

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LAHORE: Tens of thousands of supporters of two opposition leaders on Thursday swarmed the capital, Islamabad amid fears that a prolonged confrontation might lead to a military coup a year after the country’s first democratic transfer of power.

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Pakistani-Canadian cleric Allama Tahirul Qadri were leading the separate protest rallies to topple the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The demonstrators aim to cover more than 350 kilometres to reach the capital from the eastern city of Lahore, the political base of Sharif, Khan and Qadri.

The government decided to allow both protest leaders their marches after assurances that their supporters would remain peaceful and avoid clashes with police like in recent weeks.

The protests are seen a major test for a country where military coups are common.

Khan wants Sharif to step down, citing irregularities in the May 2013 elections. Qadri is demanding changes to the election system, which he says is undemocratic.

In a televised address to the nation on Tuesday, Sharif offered to investigate allegations of election fraud. But Khan rejected his overture.

Earlier the government eased security measures and removed blockades from roads leading into Islamabad after it exhausted all options and failed to prevent the marches by deploying massive police force and blocking the roads.

 More than a dozen supporters of Qadri and at least three policemen were killed in protests ahead of the planned marches.

Political commentators said the army’s reaction to the protests will decide Sharif’s fate.

The army ruled Pakistan for nearly half of its history since independence from Britain in 1947.

Thousands of policemen were deployed across Islamabad and along the convoy’s route while the capital’s entry points were blocked since earlier this week with large shipping containers.

“We are taking measures to secure the capital from any violence,” said police official Jamil Hashmi.

In Lahore, the convoy got off to a colorful start, with protesters dancing to the beat of the drums and singing patriotic songs. Many women had the green and white of the Pakistani national flag painted on their cheeks, along with the red and green of Khan’s party.

“A fight has to be fought for securing independence,” Khan told supporters as the rally kicked off.

“We are out on the streets to do our struggle for a change in the system,” said one of the protesters, Mohammad Faheem.

Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country of 180 million people, has largely been ruled by military dictators since it was carved out of India in 1947.

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