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Pakistani riot police clash with lawyers

Protesters decry reelection ruling

Police wielding batons clashed in Islamabad with lawyers and other activists opposed to President Pervez Musharraf. Police wielding batons clashed in Islamabad with lawyers and other activists opposed to President Pervez Musharraf. (Mian Khursheed/REUTERS)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - In a stone-throwing melee in the heart of Pakistan's capital, riot police yesterday fired tear gas and beat lawyers and human rights activists protesting President Pervez Musharraf's plans to have himself reelected while serving as chief of the military.

Dozens of people were reported hurt in the daylong clashes, which marked an escalation in political tensions that have unsettled Pakistan for months amid a nationwide grass-roots movement to oust Musharraf. Until now, even very large antigovernment protests have been mostly peaceful.

The violence followed a decision yesterday by the country's Election Commission to give final approval to the leader's plans to seek a new five-year term in a vote to be held by lawmakers Saturday - a vote he is almost certain to win.

A day earlier, the Supreme Court cleared the way for Musharraf's reelection by dismissing legal challenges to his standing for office in his dual roles as the country's civilian and military leader.

The Supreme Court had left the door open to Musharraf's disqualification by the Election Commission, but that body, which was handpicked by the Pakistani leader, formally accepted his candidacy.

Musharraf's ruling party has said he has enough votes to win when the national and provincial assemblies vote, and his main opponent, retired Judge Wajihuddin Ahmed, has acknowledged that he is trailing.

Musharraf seized power in a coup eight years ago and went on to become a key US ally against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But his prestige and popularity have been diminished greatly in recent months.

During yesterday's clashes between police and hundreds of protesters, clouds of tear gas drifted up and down the capital's broad, tree-lined Constitution Avenue.

At one point, tear-gas canisters landed inside the manicured grounds of the Supreme Court complex.

Outside the Election Commission building, across the street from the Supreme Court, some of the protesting lawyers wielded wooden staves to battle police, their black coats flapping and black neckties flying. Lawyers have played the leading role in the anti-Musharraf movement since March, when the general tried to fire Pakistan's respected chief justice.

More than 1,000 police and paramilitary troops were deployed in and around the court complex and the Election Commission building.

"This is the face of martial law," declared lawyer Hamid Khan, who represented cricket-star-turned-opposition-politician Imran Khan in court challenges to Musharraf's eligibility to seek reelection. "We don't accept this election process at all. How can it be fair when one candidate has a uniform and a gun?"

Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has said she will return from self-imposed exile to lead her party in that contest, but her camp is still engaged in power-sharing talks with Musharraf.

Another potentially important player in the general elections, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was deported earlier this month by Musharraf's government when he tried to return to Pakistan.

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