(NSI News Source Info) LAHORE, Pakistan - February 28, 2009: Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif warned in an interview Friday that political chaos could embolden Islamist militants threatening nuclear-armed Pakistan, as his supporters battled police following a court ruling barring him from elected office.
Pakistan's biggest political crisis in over a year began Wednesday when the Supreme Court upheld a ruling that banned Sharif from contesting elections because of a past criminal conviction.Pakistani opposition leader Nawaz Sharif gestures during an interview in Lahore, Pakistan, Friday, Feb. 27, 2009. Sharif warned in an interview Friday that political chaos could embolden Islamist militants threatening nuclear-armed Pakistan, as his supporters battled police following a court ruling barring him from elected office.
The court also disqualified Sharif's brother from continuing as head of the government in Punjab province, Pakistan's largest, prompting President Asif Ali Zardari to oust the regional government.
The pro-Western government led by Zardari's party retains its majority in the federal Parliament. U.S. officials, who have wooed both Sharif and Zardari as allies against the Taliban and al-Qaida, have expressed no public concern so far about the gathering turmoil.
But in his first interview since the crisis broke, Sharif said the situation could deteriorate to the point that it undermines Pakistan's efforts against terrorism and major economic problems.
«There are a lot of forces _ the militants, the extremists _ they are all there to take advantage,» Sharif told The Associated Press at his villa near the eastern city of Lahore.
«I think we are heading for some sort of unfortunate situation.
Later Friday, thousands of Sharif supporters thronged peacefully through Lahore's main boulevard, waving his party's green flags and chanting «Go Zardari go
But rioting also continued for a third day, with police swinging batons and firing tear gas at stone-throwing youths among hundreds of people who blocked the six-lane highway between Islamabad and the nearby city of Rawalpindi.
Protesters also tore down advertising billboards, smashed traffic signals and street lights, and blocked traffic with burning tires.
«If anybody thinks that they can make politics without Nawaz Sharif in this country, he is very much mistaken,» said Raja Nasir Mahfoz, a middle-aged man among the crowd.
Paramilitary troops carrying assault rifles also stood guard along the route, where traffic was halted for hours, but didn't intervene.
Police official Saqib Sultan said about 10 people were arrested. There were no reports of injuries.
The government has accused Sharif, a two-time prime minister widely considered the country's most popular politician, of fomenting «open rebellion.» Sharif has called for police in Punjab to disobey orders from the governor, a Zardari loyalist who has taken emergency control of the province for two months.
But Zardari faces a hail of media criticism _ and an uncomfortable re-examination of past allegations of corruption.Sharif accused Zardari of orchestrating the crisis in cahoots with senior judges in order to prevent any reopening of recently shelved corruption cases that saw him jailed for years under former President Pervez Musharraf.Pakistani anti-riot police officers walk toward demonstrators, not seen, during clashes in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, Feb. 27, 2009. Police fought running battles with supporters of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif near Pakistan's capital Friday as protests against a court order barring him from elected office continued for a third day.
Zardari and the year-old government led by his party have resisted pressure to reinstate Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who was ousted as chief justice by Musharraf in 2007.
Chaudhry had questioned the legality of Musharraf's presidency and a pact that quashed cases against Zardari and his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, involving millions of dollars allegedly stowed in Swiss bank accounts.Sharif has urged his supporters to join mass rallies planned for mid-March by Pakistan's lawyers, whose protests in defense of Chaudhry undermined Musharraf's long rule.
Associated Press writer Babar Dogar in Lahore contributed to this report.