Security crackdown ordered on anti-government protests in Pakistan

Pakistani police block the highway with containers in the capital Islamabad on August 13, 2014. FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images

ISLAMABAD - Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government on Wednesday ordered the country's capital of Islamabad surrounded by heavy security amid the threat of violent protests by anti-government politicians.

The crackdown comes the day before planned celebrations for Pakistan's Independence Day, celebrating the country's creation on August 14, 1947.

The prospect of growing turmoil across the nuclear-armed South Asian country could also pose a challenge for U.S. policy.

A senior western diplomat in Islamabad who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity said Sharif's failure to curb the unrest ahead of the planned draw-down of U.S.-led Western troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 "is not a good situation for any of us."

"The U.S. has an interest in Pakistan remaining stable, for the draw-down to complete successfully," the diplomat said. "Trouble on the streets [of Pakistan] will not keep this country settled."

The threat of protests came mainly from Imran Khan, Pakistan's cricket star-turned-politician, and fiery Islamic cleric Tahirul Qadri. Both men have threatened to storm Islamabad on Thursday coinciding with the national Independence Day celebrations.

Khan's protest is driven by his allegations of widespread fraud in the national elections of 2013 which brought Sharif to power, while Qadri said he is campaigning to bring about a revolutionary change in Pakistan.

However, politicians loyal to Sharif said the two men are being discretely supported by the country's powerful military, which ruled Pakistan for about half of its life as an independent state.

The military "cannot come to terms with a democratic government," said a member of parliament representing Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) political party, who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, analysts warned the decision to crackdown on protesters will further weaken Sharif's government.

"The protests are now gaining a life of their own. Suppressing dissent will only give an impetus to the demonstrations," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political commentator.

Rizvi said conditions in Pakistan have already become unsettled since the police in Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city and Sharif's hometown, attacked Qadri's protesters recently.

Qadri and his followers claim at least 15 people have been killed and more than 100 injured. In the past week, Qadri has claimed that up to seven more of his followers have been killed in parts of the populous Punjab province, of which Lahore is the local capital, in protests against Sharif.

"This regime will not survive. They are relying increasingly on draconian methods. Regimes which use draconian methods eventually pay for their deeds" Qadri told a large gathering of his followers in Lahore last week.

The crackdown in Islamabad might not happen if Khan can give assurances that the demonstrations would remain peaceful.

"Many of us have quietly urged the prime minister to allow this demonstration. A heavy crackdown may provoke a bigger protest" said the member of Sharif's political party who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity.

However, on the streets of Islamabad, there were signs of growing popular resentment among ordinary Pakistanis. The recent 12 hours of electricity cuts during the country's scorching summer may have contributed to the resentment.

Outside Islamabad, reports from some areas have suggested there have been power cuts lasting for up to 20 hours a day.

"This government has utterly failed" said Hukam Khan, a local taxi driver, who spoke to CBS News while stuck in traffic at the main entrance to Islamabad, where hundreds of policemen have been deployed in the past two days.

Although the electricity cuts have preceded Sharif's election, he has disappointed many Pakistanis who felt that his credentials as a businessman could have helped him to deal with the electricity crisis.

  • Farhan Bokhari

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