Pakistan's Sharif clings to power as protesters step up assault

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was clinging to power Monday as protesters stepped up their assault on government buildings while the capital was gripped with fear and confusion about whether the country’s powerful military will step in to defuse the tension.

As the demonstrations calling for the prime minister’s resignation enter their third week, Mr. Sharif is trying to navigate Pakistan’s worst political crisis in more than a decade. With the violence increasing, what started as a routine demonstration has morphed into concerns that the government of a nuclear-armed country could collapse.

Former cricket star Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri, a firebrand preacher and scholar, allege that Mr. Sharif was elected last year in fraudulent balloting and hasn’t done enough to fix the country’s ailing economy.

Mr. Khan and Mr. Qadri, who are considered moderates, have mobilized tens of thousands of followers onto the streets. Many are armed with sticks, clubs and slingshots.

Over the weekend, the demonstration took an ominous turn as three people were killed and 400 wounded when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to prevent protesters from reaching Mr. Sharif’s residence in Islamabad. On Monday, the protesters stormed the state television station and knocked it off the air for more than an hour.

Army and paramilitary officers regained control of the building, which had been ransacked by demonstrators. But some protesters and police continued to beat each other with sticks in the heart of the capital, about a mile away from the U.S. Embassy.

The protests spread to other major Pakistani cities over the weekend, and there is rampant speculation in Pakistan that military leaders could intervene and force Mr. Sharif to resign.

Mr. Sharif met with Army Chief Raheel Sharif on Monday afternoon, the third such face-to-face encounter between the two men since late last week. But Mr. Sharif, who is not related to the army chief, issued a statement late in the day saying he will not voluntarily resign.

“I will not resign under any pressure and I will not go on leave,” Mr. Sharif said. “There shall be no precedent in Pakistan that only a few people take as hostage the mandate of millions by resorting to force.”

Pakistan’s military issued a statement saying it was an “apolitical institution” with “unequivocal support for democracy.” The statements also “categorically rejected” suggestions that the military was secretly backing Mr. Khan and Mr. Qadri over Mr. Sharif.

But Mr. Sharif’s government appears increasingly vulnerable, which is alarming Western officials and many analysts. Last year, Mr. Sharif’s election marked the first successful transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another in Pakistan. It was a proud, historic moment in a country that has experienced three successful military coups since its founding in 1947.

Now, there is widespread concern that the country of 180 million people is entering a new period of uncertainty.

“There is complete confusion about what is happening,” said Hasan Askari, a Lahore-based political and military analyst. “On one hand, it appears the state is collapsing, and the other hand there appears to be a stalemate.”

Asia - South Asia - Islamabad - Pakistan - Pakistan government - Nawaz Sharif - Pakistani armed forces - Pervez Musharraf

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