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Page last updated at 18:16 GMT, Thursday, 26 February 2009

Pakistani protests turn violent

Supporters of former premier Nawaz Sharif march during a protest in Lahore on February 26, 2009.
Thousands marched in support of the Sharifs

Thousands of supporters of Pakistan's ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have protested after the courts banned him and his brother from elected office.

Streets were blocked off in main cities and businesses and vehicles set alight.

Sharif supporters and police clashed near Rawalpindi, with unconfirmed reports of injuries.

Mr Sharif accuses President Zardari of influencing the court decision in order to remove him from politics, raising fears of renewed political turmoil.

The protests are against Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling upholding a ban on Mr Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz, from elected office.

Mr Sharif's PML-N holds power in Punjab province, where his brother was chief minister but has now been ordered to step down.

Correspondents say the court order is expected to deepen the rift between the Sharifs and the federal government led by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

Clashes

Incidents of violence were reported from all over Punjab province, the Sharif's main power base. There were smaller anti-government protests in the capital, Islamabad.

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Protesters burn tyres on the streets

Thousands of protesters, waving the green flags of Mr Sharif's PML-N party, burned tyres in the many demonstrations - black smoke billowed into the air.

The most serious clashes took place on the outskirts of the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

Protesters attacked banks and shops, set vehicles alight and blocked roads. Two of the vehicles set on fire were police vans.

Police baton charged the demonstrators and lobbed tear gas shells. Crowds pelted security forces with stones.

Earlier, Mr Sharif addressed a rally in the town of Shekhupura in central Punjab.

Nawaz Sharif 25 August
Mr Sharif has accused President Zardari of being behind the ban

"Don't break the law, wreck public property or take the law into your own hands," he told his supporters.

Mr Sharif said the main cause of Pakistan's current problems emanated from former president Gen Pervez Musharraf's eight years in power.

Gen Musharraf overthrew Mr Sharif's government in a 1999 military coup, but his supporters were trounced in elections last year and he stood down.

Mr Sharif criticised judges appointed by President Musharraf and said he had been "let down" by Mr Zardari, who he forged an alliance with to win the elections.

"I put all my trust in him, but he broke my trust," he said.

Mr Sharif said as far as he was concerned, his brother Shahbaz Sharif was still the chief minister of Punjab.

President Zardari has dismissed the Punjab government and given control to the governor who is one of his loyalists.

Earlier, Mr Zardari's prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gillani, caused surprise when he said he had been shocked to learn of the Supreme Court's decision.

He said the attorney-general had not taken him into his confidence.

Power struggle

The Supreme Court ban on the Sharif bothers standing for public office came on Wednesday.

It upheld a high court ruling that Mr Sharif was ineligible to stand for parliament because he had been convicted in connection with the 1999 hijacking of a plane carrying Gen Musharraf before his coup.

The BBC's Barbara Plett in Islamabad says a power struggle is shaping up between Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari - and weeks, if not months, of demonstrations and political turmoil loom.

Observers say the main beneficiary of such tensions may be Pakistan's powerful military, which has a long history of clandestine political involvement and destabilising civilian governments.

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