'Many of Bhutto's friends and backers have distanced themselves from the actions of the government, which in recent days has arrested opponents...'Sun, March 15, 2009 - 10:25 AM
Pakistani authorities today placed opposition leader Nawaz Sharif under house arrest, a day after putting the armed forces on alert amid an escalating power struggle with former allies.
U.S. diplomatic efforts to defuse the political crisis intensified as the Pakistani government pledged anew to block a massive opposition rally in the capital on Monday. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton separately telephoned President Asif Ali Zardari and Sharif on Saturday, urging both sides to show restraint, according to spokesmen for the two camps. Zardari's office said Clinton promised U.S. support for democracy in Pakistan.
Word of Sharif's house arrest came from a spokesman, Pervez Rashid, who said hundreds of police surrounded the party leader's residence at dawn, hours after he delivered a trademark fiery speech to supporters in Lahore. Pakistani television reports said Sharif's politician brother, Shahbaz, had also been confined in the city of Rawalpindi, adjacent to Islamabad.
In a sign of the disarray within Zardari's government, a key aide, Information Minister Sherry Rehman, was in seclusion after reports that she had tendered her resignation. Rehman was a close associate of Zardari's late wife, ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Many of Bhutto's friends and backers have distanced themselves from the actions of the government, which in recent days has arrested opponents and placed restrictions on political rallies.
The Obama administration is also keeping a wary eye on the seeming ascendancy of Sharif, who has less of a pro-Western bent than Zardari, as well as tighter links with Islamist parties.
An angry backlash against the Supreme Court ruling by supporters of the popular Sharif coincided with plans by a nationwide lawyers movement to stage protests demanding the reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who was fired by Musharraf. Now the two causes have in effect merged.
Most of the dozens of judges fired by Musharraf have been returned to the bench, and Zardari promised to reinstate the remainder but has not done so. The president is widely believed to fear that Chaudhry would reinstate corruption cases against him.
Zardari has also delayed giving up extraordinary powers that Musharraf accorded himself as president, including the ability to dissolve parliament.
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