Cleric leads thousands in Pakistan protest

An influential Pakistani preacher has led thousands of supporters at the start of a protest march on the capital, Islamabad, to demand key reforms before looming elections.

Hundreds of cars, buses and trucks carrying around 7000 people left the easternmost city of Lahore on Sunday, expected to grow in number as they passed through towns and villages en route to Islamabad, accompanied by a heavy security presence.

By late Sunday the march had reached the town of Kamoke, some 50 kilometres north of the city, and organisers claimed that up to 200,000 people had joined the slow-moving caravan.

The number of protesters could not be verified independently and police declined to give any estimates.

Tahir-ul Qadri, who is leading the march, 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.

The government says Qadri, an Islamic scholar who preaches against terrorism and who returned to Pakistan only last month after years in Canada, is part of a dangerous conspiracy designed to postpone elections and grab power.

Interior minister Rehman Malik on Sunday again warned of a terror threat to protesters, saying he had "credible" intelligence reports that Qadri would be targeted in a possible attack.

The authorities have sealed off the main approaches to Islamabad and warned the Taliban could attack the march, leading to the closure of schools, businesses and embassies on Monday, when the rally is expected to arrive.

"I am declaring it democracy march," Qadri, bespectacled and with a closely cropped white beard, told reporters as activists carried green and white Pakistani flags and a mock coffin to symbolise the "redundant system".

"This is a march for protection of human rights, elimination of poverty, supremacy of constitution, rule of law and end of corruption," Qadri said.

He wants an independent caretaker government, set up in consultation with the military and judiciary, when parliament disbands and before elections.

If polls are held on time, it will mark the first time that a democratically elected civilian government hands over to another democratically elected civilian government in Pakistan, which has seen four military dictators.

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