Pak teeters as PM sticks to his guns

SRINAGAR: As if bracing for a ‘soft coup’ by the newly emerged political forces, Pakistan on Monday briefly encountered a hostage crisis as the agitated marchers stormed the official Pakistan Television Center at Islamabad, taking it off air for several hours. The paramilitary personnel regained control of the broadcaster from protesters, but the riots did not melt away and by the evening police were firing tear gas in the capital.

The day was also marked by rumors of Pakistan army’s chief of staff General Raheel Sharif advising the prime minister to step down and also announcing a judicial commission to probe the alleged rigging of the elections held last year.

The violence had escalated on Saturday, after supporters of the former cricket captain-turned-opposition leader Imran Khan and the Muslim cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri attacked police outside the prime minister’s official residence. Three protesters died and several hundred were injured in the clashes.

Early on Monday, a group of between 400 and 600 protesters invaded Pakistan Television’s English-language service in the heart of the capital and forced it off air. Shortly before ending transmission, its announcer said: “They have stormed the PTV office. PTV staff performing their duties are being beaten up.”

The brief occupation was ended by Pakistan Rangers paramilitary troops.

But the invasion and the announcer’s comments highlighted the dilemma facing Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister: how long he can allow protesters to lay siege to the capital before using force to restore normality? And can he count on the country’s powerful army to support him?

His room for maneuver was severely restricted by Pakistan’s army chief General Raheel Sharif on Sunday, when a conference of his corps commanders issued a statement voicing “serious concern” over the violence and “large scale injuries and loss of lives”. He warned that “further use of force will only aggravate the problem”.

The army chief had publicly clashed with the prime minister on Friday after  Sharif denied he had asked him to mediate in talks with Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri earlier in the day. He told the National Assembly that the army “did not ask to play the role of mediator, neither have we requested them to play such a role.”

General Raheel Sharif, who is not related to the prime minister, later contradicted him in a statement saying the government had asked him to play a “facilitative role for resolution of current impasse”. The rumors flew thick on Monday that General Rahil had actually advised the prime minister either to resign or proceed on leave, a demand made by the protesting leaders. But the Inter Services Public Relation, the mouthpiece of Pakistani army, was quick to rebut this.

Thousands of protesters demanding Sharif’s resignation have battled police and soldiers in the street for days. Three people have died and 450 have been injured, Pakistani medical authorities have said.

Sharif has vowed to remain on the job in spite the violent demonstrations. The protesters accuse him of rigging last year’s elections that allowed his party to take power

After their meeting, Imran Khan later told his supporters the army had offered an independent inquiry into allegations of ballot rigging in last year’s elections – which the Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League won with a strong majority – but said a fair inquiry could not be carried out while he remained in power.

Western media quote senior government sources to suggest that the army, or at least a section of it, is seeking to destabilize Sharif’s government and wants fresh elections to oust or weaken him.

“There is a strong belief that they [the demonstrators] can’t continue doing what they’re doing without support from certain sections of the army.

“After the corps commanders’ meeting they said force should not be used – but if you’re getting people in the PTV headquarters you’re giving them a free hand. They’re carrying six feet sticks and you’re told not to use force,” a British newspaper quoted a source, voicing the government’s frustration, as said.

 “Once the parliamentarians go into session tomorrow and they’re protesting on the greens, the question is whether to give the police full powers and whether they feel they have to use strong force to stop these people getting unruly. If they can’t the second option is the Pakistan Rangers – and the final resort is the army,” he added.

Islamabad has been paralyzed since an estimated 70,000 protesters arrived from Lahore on August 15 and marched on Constitutional Avenue – which houses the National Assembly and the Prime Minister’s residence. Since then schools and offices have remained closed.

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