Zardari barred from holding rally

Associated Press

Lahore, April 16:

150 held after clash with police at Lahore airport.

The husband of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was whisked off a plane and spirited away by police upon his return from a trip overseas to prevent him from holding a rally in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore today. Asif Ali Zardari was taken from the airport and dropped at his home, even as between 100 and 150 opposition activists who had managed to evade a heavy police blockade of Lahore airport were arrested after clashing with police. About 200 other protesters were arrested elsewhere in the city. “Down with Musharraf! Long live Bhutto! Long live democracy!” activists at the airport shouted before they were baton-charged and then bundled away in police vans. Three or four were bleeding. In recent days, party officials say thousands of activists from Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party have been rounded up around the country.

The planned rally was a carefully orchestrated bid by the opposition to boost the political profile of Zardari, who was freed on bail in December after eight years in jail on corruption charges, and Bhutto’s party, marginalised during the five-year rule of president general Pervez Musharraf. Zardari had travelled to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to visit his wife, who lives there in self-imposed exile. The opposition had trumpeted his return as a test of Musharraf’s commitment to democracy and tolerance of political opponents. Top PPP leaders, including secretary-general Jehangir Bader and Punjab province president Qasim Zia were arrested yesterday as they held a meeting at a house in Lahore. Information minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said the party officials and activists would soon be freed and denied claims Zardari had been arrested.

“Police dropped him at his home in Lahore and he must be having his breakfast by now.”

Chief minister of Punjab province Chaudhry Pervez Elahi told Geo television that police provided “security” for Zardari. “He said he is worried about his security, and we sent police to Lahore airport to safely drop him at his home on his request.” PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar said though police had not arrested Zardari, other party leaders who arrived with him were taken into custody. Party president Mukhdoom Amin Fahim was one of them “I condemn the arrest of my supporters and party leaders and demand their release,” Zardari said from his home in Lahore. “By not allowing me to hold a peaceful rally, the government has unmasked its face. There is a fascist government here, and I announce that our struggle for restoration of real democracy will continue.” He said he still planned to hold a rally in the city in the next two days.