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Islamabad hit by raging protests

AP

Ahead of a joint session of parliament, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the country’s army chief held marathon meetings Monday over violent antigovernment protests that could force the premier of the nuclear-armed country to resign.

Sharif again vowed he will not step down under duress, as protesters briefly took over the country’s state-run television broadcaster and battled security forces in the streets. But the pressure from three days of violent protests on Sharif has intensified amid reports — later denied by the military — that the country’s powerful army chief advised him to resign.

The parliamentary session Tuesday appears to be an attempt to rally political support to the prime minister’s side. While many politicians have backed him so far, many in the country increasingly have grown worried about the protests and the direction of the nascent democracy in the country of 180 million people.

The turmoil comes as part of the mass demonstrations led by cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and opposition politician Imran Khan, who both demand Sharif step down over their allegations of fraud in last year’s election. Their protests, which have been peaceful for weeks, turned ugly over the weekend when clashes between protesters and security forces killed three people and wounded some 400 in running street battles in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.

Monday began with more violence. Demonstrators briefly took over Pakistan’s state television station, forcing the channel off the air. Senior official Athar Farooq said 20 cameras went missing as protesters overran the station, armed with sticks and screaming. They also destroyed equipment and fought with employees.

Several protesters also took down a portrait of Sharif from a wall, threw it on the floor and stomped on it in anger.

Soldiers and paramilitary rangers later reached the building and began to clear it of protesters. Some private television stations showed footage of protesters embracing the rangers and agreeing to leave.

The rallies against Sharif constitute the biggest threat to his government. Several rounds of negotiations between representatives of Khan and Qadri and the government have failed to resolve the crisis.

The two opposition leaders allege widespread fraud in the country’s May 2013 election, in which Sharif’s party won by a landslide. International observers found no evidence of rampant election tampering.

Questions about whether the military has played a role in fomenting the crisis intensified after a news conference by Javed Hashmi, who until Sunday was a top ally of Khan and the president of his political party, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf.

Hashmi described Khan’s protest movements as being scripted. He also said he opposed joining Qadri’s protest. But touching his shoulder, in reference to the epaulettes military officers wear, Hashmi said Khan told him: “They want us to go with Tahir-ul-Qadri.”

Khan has denied any outside influence on his protest, and the military rejected the idea that they backed the protesters, saying their support for democracy is “unequivocal.”

However, Pakistan’s military wields a powerful influence. It has taken power in three coups since the country was carved out of India in 1947, including one that forced Sharif out of the prime minister’s office in 1999 and into exile in 1999.

Sharif’s relations with the military have become increasingly rocky over his year in power. He infuriated them by pressing treason charges against former army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who toppled him in 1999.