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Pakistan Lawmakers Meet Amid Protests  08/20 06:21

   ISLAMABAD (AP) -- Pakistani lawmakers met Wednesday as tens of thousands of 
protesters thronged outside the assembly calling for the resignation of Prime 
Minister Nawaz Sharif over alleged voting fraud.

   Sharif and other lawmakers were able to enter the building through a back 
exit connected to the premier's office after the protesters late Tuesday had 
torn down barricades and entered the so-called Red Zone housing Parliament and 
other key government buildings.

   The twin protests led by the famous cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan 
and fiery cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri have virtually shut down Islamabad, raising 
fears of unrest in the nuclear-armed U.S. ally with a history of military coups 
and dictatorship.

   Despite the mounting pressure, Sharif has refused to step down, while the 
country's powerful army has called for a negotiated settlement.

   "Situation requires patience, wisdom and sagacity from all stakeholders to 
resolve prevailing impasse," army spokesman Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa said on 
Twitter. He said the government buildings in the so-called Red Zone were a 
"symbol of state" and were being protected by the army.

   Khan, the former cricket star leading one of the protests, has called on 
demonstrators not to enter Parliament but warned he would lead them into the 
premier's office if Sharif does not step down by Wednesday evening. The 
premier's office is being guarded by police, paramilitary rangers and troops.

   Pakistan Television showed Sharif entering the National Assembly, or lower 
house of parliament, and meeting with lawmakers from all the major parties 
except Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which is the legislature's third 
largest bloc.

   Lawmakers from several parties condemned the protesters' attempt to besiege 
Parliament.

   "We will foil this conspiracy, and we will defend our democratic 
institutions," said Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of the Jamaat-e-Islami party 
and a Sharif ally.

   Shazia Marri, a lawmaker from the opposition Pakistan People's Party, 
condemned the move to surround Parliament, saying: "We will strive to safeguard 
democracy. We will strive for the supremacy of the constitution."

   Outside the Parliament, Qadri directed his supporters to occupy all the main 
gates of the building and not to allow Sharif or any other deputies to leave 
until the prime minister resigns.

   "We deliberately gave these lawmakers a chance to enter the Parliament, but 
now we will not allow any lawmaker to go inside or come out," he said. It was 
not immediately clear, however, whether the demonstrators would be able to seal 
off the assembly.

   The protesters accuse Sharif of rigging the May 2013 election that brought 
him to office in the country's first ever democratic transfer of power.

   Sharif was forced from office after a previous stint as prime minister in 
1999, when the then-army chief Pervez Musharraf seized power in a coup.

   A peaceful and celebratory atmosphere prevailed outside the Parliament on 
Wednesday, with protesters dancing to the beat of drums, singing patriotic 
songs and chanting against Sharif.

   "Yesterday, people were saying we will never be able to reach the 
Parliament. Look, we are standing right in front of the Parliament," said Rabia 
Naeem, 22, a Khan supporter. "Imran Khan is the only hope to save Pakistan from 
corrupt rulers," she said.

   Asad Hafeez, a 45-year-old Qadri supporter, said reforms were needed before 
any new elections.

   "We need electoral reforms and a neutral government to hold free and fair 
elections. It will only happen when Nawaz Sharif resigns," he said.

   The U.S. embassy in Islamabad said its consular section would remain closed 
Wednesday, and advised American citizens to keep a low profile and avoid large 
gatherings.


(KA)


 
 
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