Pakistan warns anti-government cleric to end protest

Wed Jan 16, 2013 6:16pm EST
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By Mubasher Bukhari

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan's interior minister on Wednesday warned an anti-government Muslim cleric and thousands of protesters camped out near parliament to disperse, saying they were at risk of attack by militants.

Rehman Malik said authorities had learned militants might be planning to target the crowd, and that the cleric, Muhammad Tahirul Qadri, would be held responsible for any attacks.

"The best commandos are with me today," Malik told a news conference, saying security forces could take action against Qadri within the next two days to prevent "expected terrorism".

"I hope that he listens to me."

Qadri, who backed a military coup in 1999, is calling for the immediate resignation of the government and the installation of a caretaker administration to oversee electoral reforms.

The government was rocked on Tuesday by a Supreme Court order for the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf within 24 hours on suspicion of corruption.

Qadri's appearance at the forefront of Pakistan's political scene has fuelled speculation that the army, which has a long history of involvement in politics, has tacitly endorsed his campaign in an effort to pile more pressure on a government it sees as inept and corrupt.

Qadri and the military deny this.   Continued...

Women supporters of Sufi cleric and leader of the Minhaj-ul-Quran religious organisation Muhammad Tahirul Qadri link their hands during his speech on their third day of protests in Islamabad January 16, 2013. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro