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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)


Pakistan Seeks Talks With Opposition

By Barry Newhouse
13 March 2009

Officials in President Asif Zardari's office said he is seeking talks with opposition groups to end two days of anti-government demonstrations. The offer follows a widening security crackdown that has resulted in hundreds of arrests.

The government's offer for negotiations follows several meetings with top political and military leaders as well as consultations with American diplomats. The U.S. State Department has said it wants to see the situation addressed lawfully, without violence or any impediments to democratic activities.

Mr. Zardari has faced criticism from within his own party for the crackdown on the demonstrations.

It is not yet clear who Mr. Zardari is expected to meet with, or what concessions he may be prepared to make. The offer came after opposition leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif asked for an end to executive rule in Punjab, the dropping of the judicial ruling that banned he and his brother from holding elected office and the restoration of an independent judiciary.

Safdar Abbassi, a senator and long time PPP member who had close ties to Benazir Bhutto, told VOA that Mr. Zardari's recent actions to crack down on anti-government protests have provoked dissension within the party.

He said many people are considering whether the party should stick to its 40-year history of promoting democracy in Pakistan, or remain with the current leadership that uses the police and state machinery to crush dissent.

On Friday, officials banned rallies in the North West Frontier Province, expanding prohibitions that have largely succeeded in stopping long vehicle convoys making their way to the capital.

Protesters have decried heavy-handed police tactics that have resulted in hundreds of arrests and highway blockades. A more extensive security cordon involving paramilitary troops is planned for Monday's rally in the capital.

Former prime minister Sharif continued his criticism of President Asif Zardari in a series of media appearances Thursday and Friday. In one televised interview with a Pakistani network, he called the present conflict an extension of the 2007 standoff between former president Pervez Musharraf and supreme court justices who threatened to invalidate his presidency.

"This is a decision that we have to make as a nation. Stand with those judges who stood against that dictator Mr. Musharraf, or should we stand with the other ones, who actually defied and violated the constitution and the law," he said.

Mr. Musharraf replaced his critics on the court with more sympathetic judges. Analysts say Mr. Zardari opposes reinstating those same deposed justices, especially the chief, because they could reopen corruption cases against him.

Critics say the similarities between the two leaders also extend to their close relations with the United States and unpopular policies at home. Late Thursday, another suspected U.S. missile strike in Pakistan's Taliban-dominated tribal region killed 24 people. The deeply unpopular strikes that began under Mr. Musharraf's rule have sharply increased during Mr. Zardari's tenure.

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