Cleric leads thousands in Pakistan protest march
LAHORE, Pakistan: An influential Pakistani religious leader led thousands of supporters out of Lahore on Sunday, kicking off a protest march on the capital to demand key reforms before looming elections.
Tahir-ul Qadri accuses the government of being corrupt and incompetent, and argues that 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 said Qadri, an Islamic scholar and preacher who returned to Pakistan last month after years in Canada, is part of a dangerous conspiracy designed to postpone elections and grab power.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said 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 on Monday.
But undeterred, hundreds of cars, buses and trucks carrying around 7,000 people began leaving the easternmost Pakistani city of Lahore accompanied by a heavy security presence, an AFP reporter said.
To his followers, Qadri is giving a voice to the impoverished and oppressed masses who have long been governed by corrupt members of Pakistan's immensely wealthy feudal, landowning and industrial families.
"I am declaring it democracy march," Qadri told reporters just before embarking on the protest. "Let's make V (victory) signs with fingers and begin our march for real democracy."
"This is a march for protection of human rights, elimination of poverty, supremacy of constitution, rule of law and end of corruption," Qadri said, accusing the Punjab provincial government of impounding buses and detaining drivers.
Police said 10,000 officers had been deployed along the route of the march for the security of the protesters and that an elite commando squad would guard Qadri.
"No restrictions are placed on the protest, but we have asked the organisers to check all buses and participants before leaving," police official Sohail Ahmed Sukhera told AFP.
Activists carried the green and white national flag of Pakistan and a mock coffin to symbolise the country's "redundant system".
Mohammad Farooq, 50, who managed to arrange two buses despite restrictions from local authorities, said he travelled from the eastern industrial city of Faisalabad to join the march, saying he was prepared to die for the cause.
"We are going to Islamabad to change the exploitative system and will not budge from our mission and even sacrifice our lives for it," Farooq told AFP.
Unemployed Mohammad Ahmed, 24, from the town of Pakpattan, said that Qadri's followers would overcome any hurdle imposed by the authorities to reach Islamabad.
"I have joined this long march because it is against a corrupt system and people want to change it," Ahmed said, holding a placard saying "Five percent of people are occupying 95 percent of resources".
An AFP reporter said the crowd was converging towards one convoy from different starting points in Lahore. Organisers say fuel canisters and trucks laden with rations will also accompany the protesters.
Qadri delivered a speech to more than 100,000 followers in Lahore on December 23, just three days after returning from Canada, giving the government until January 10 to initiate reforms, otherwise he would march on Islamabad.