Protesters demand change in Pakistan

AN influential Pakistani religious leader led thousands of supporters out of Lahore yesterday, kicking off a protest march on the capital to demand democratic reforms before elections.

Tahir ul-Qadri accuses the government of corruption and incompetence, and says Pakistan must enact "meaningful" reforms before general elections, which are scheduled to be held within eight weeks after parliament disbands in mid-March.

But the government says Dr Qadri, an Islamic scholar and preacher who returned to Pakistan last month after years in Canada, is part of a dangerous conspiracy to postpone elections and grab power.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik says the Taliban are planning to attack the march and that protesters will be barred from the centre of Islamabad, where they are expected to arrive today.

Undeterred, hundreds of cars, buses and trucks carrying about 7000 people began leaving the easternmost Pakistani city of Lahore accompanied by a heavy security presence.

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To his followers, Dr Qadri is giving a voice to the impoverished and oppressed masses who have long been governed by corrupt members of Pakistan's wealthy feudal, landowning and industrial families.

"I am declaring it a democracy march," Dr Qadri told reporters before beginning the march. "This is a march for protection of human rights, elimination of poverty, supremacy of constitution, rule of law and end of corruption." Activists carried the green and white national flag of Pakistan and a mock coffin to symbolise the country's "redundant system".

Mohammad Farooq, 50, said he had travelled from the eastern industrial city of Faisalabad to join the march. "We are going to Islamabad to change the exploitative system and will not budge from our mission and even sacrifice our lives for it," he said.

On the other side of the country, a grimmer protest was under way in the wake of a massive double bombing attack on a club in Quetta.

Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf has arrived in the Balochistan capital where at least 92 people were killed and 121 wounded. The attack, in a mostly Shi'ite area, claimed by Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

Shi'ite families have refused to bury their dead and vowed to continue a sit-in protest with the bodies, supported by thousands of others, until the army takes over security in the city.

Refusal to bury the dead is an extreme protest in Islamic society, where bodies are normally buried within a day or two.

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