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Pakistani protesters push closer to PM house, force TV off the air

Source: Reuters - Mon, 1 Sep 2014 06:54 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Protests demanding PM resignation started in mid-August

* How crisis unfolds depends on army's actions

* Protesters clash with police, advance on PM house (Adds quote)

By Syed Raza Hassan and Maria Golovnina

ISLAMABAD, Sept 1 (Reuters) - Pakistani protesters pushed closer to the prime minister's house in central Islamabad on Monday in their bid to force his removal and closed down national television after clashes turned violent over the weekend.

News footage showed soldiers and paramilitary forces entering PTV national television's headquarters in central Islamabad after a crowd broke through its gate and into the building.

"They have stormed the PTV office," a news anchor said just before the screen went blank. "PTV staff performing their journalistic duties are being beaten up."

Police fired tear gas at protesters outside the prime minister's house, but were seen retreating as protesters, many carrying wooden clubs, pushed closer to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's official residence.

It was not clear if he was at home at the time.

Protests led by Imran Khan, a renowned cricketer before entering politics, and fiery cleric Tahir ul-Qadri, erupted last month and descended into deadly chaos on Saturday, with at least three people killed in clashes with police.

In a nation where power has often changed hands through military coups rather than elections, the army is bound to play a key role in how the conflict unfolds but it has not directly intervened, apart from talking to the protagonists and calling on them to show restraint.

On Monday, despite heavy rain, crowds of protesters fought running battles with retreating police after breaking the main gate into the Pakistan Secretariat area which houses government ministries as well as Sharif's residence.

The protesters could be seen beating motorcycles and cars with their sticks as they advanced closer to their target. They had tried to storm Sharif's house on Saturday night but were beaten back by police.

The head of Islamabad police and another senior police officer were lightly wounded in the clashes, media reported.

Sharif, who swept to office last year in Pakistan's first democratic transition of power, has refused to resign. He is due to address both houses of parliament on Tuesday in an apparent effort to show that he is firmly in control.

ARMY WARNING

But Sharif looks increasingly cornered in the conflict, and even if he survives the crisis he is likely to remain significantly weakened for the rest of his tenure and sidelined by the army on key issues such as foreign policy and security.

The protesters out on Monday appeared to be from Qadri's camp.

Khan, who has refused to hold negotiations, says he would not call off the protests until Sharif resigns, calling on his people to avoid any form of violence.

"I call upon my workers to remain peaceful," Khan said from atop a shipping container at the main rally site. "Do not carry out any acts of violence. God has given us victory."

In a warning to police, the military said any further use of force to resolve an escalating political crisis would only worsen the situation. But it has also said the crisis had to be solved through talks, in a clear message to Khan and Qadri.

As protesters charged towards police lines in the so-called Red zone - home to the prime minister's house, parliament and many foreign embassies - security forces could be seen retreating, with police huddled in groups and avoiding direct confrontation.

Reflecting concern about security in the capital, all schools were closed on Monday, the start of a new academic year. (Writing by Maria Golovnina and Nick Macfie; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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