APTOPIX Pakistan
Khalid Tanveer  /  AP
Pakistani lawyers hold bamboo sticks as they run toward police officers during an anti-government rally in Multan, Pakistan, on Saturday.
updated 3/14/2009 10:58:41 AM ET 2009-03-14T14:58:41

Pakistan's government put the army on standby ahead of planned opposition protests in the capital, the military said Saturday, raising the stakes in a political crisis that endangers the country's effort against Islamist extremism.

In another sign of strain on the pro-Western government, a prominent minister tendered her resignation from the Cabinet after a television station complained its coverage of the crisis was curbed.

Authorities have vowed to prevent lawyers and supporters of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif from converging on Islamabad for a mass sit-in in front of Parliament on Monday, arguing it will paralyze the government and present a target for terrorists.

President Asif Ali Zardari on Saturday offered to negotiate a solution to a conflict triggered by last month's removal of Sharif's party from power in the country's biggest and richest province, Punjab.

But protest leaders are vowing to defy the widening clampdown, raising the likelihood of violent clashes that could cast the nuclear-armed country into turmoil just a year after democratic elections ended years of military rule.

Information Minister Sherry Rehman announced her resignation from the Cabinet on Saturday after the private Geo TV channel complained that cable TV companies had blocked its programming in several cities.

Geo accused Zardari of ordering the restrictions — an allegation that presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said was "absolutely incorrect."

Rehman didn't explain her decision and the channel appeared to be available again on Saturday in major cities.

Cracking down
Police have temporarily detained scores of activists across the country, including five people at a gathering of hundreds of lawyers and Sharif supporters Saturday in the central city of Multan.

"So far our attitude is soft, but we can change our strategy," said Ali Ahmad Kurd, the leader of the country's lawyers movement, said in Quetta after authorities allegedly prevented him from boarding a plane to the eastern city of Lahore.

"When one path is blocked, God opens 100 others, and we will reach Lahore and then Islamabad," said Kurd, whose road convoy was turned back by police on Friday.

The conflict is rooted in Zardari's refusal to accept demands from lawyers and an array of political parties that he reinstate a group of judges fired by former military leader Pervez Musharraf.

It deepened last month when the Supreme Court banned Sharif and his brother from elected office. Zardari then dismissed the Punjab provincial administration, which had been led by Shahbaz Sharif.

Ejected from his only stronghold, Nawaz Sharif, widely considered the country's most popular politician, threw his weight behind the already-planned lawyers protest.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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