Pakistani chief justice to return

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan agreed today to reinstate a fired chief justice, a government official said, a move that could help defuse a political crisis that has sparked street battles and raised fears of instability in the country at a time of surging Islamist violence.

Opposition leaders and lawyers had vowed to sit-in at the parliament later today until Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, known for his independence and willingness to challenge authority, was reinstated. The capital has been barricaded and scores of extra police brought in amid fears of violence.

A senior government official said Chaudhry would be sworn in on Sunday, the day after the current chief justice was due to retire. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani would soon have "good news" for the country that would "end the crisis."

The concession came as thousands of protesters led by Nawaz Sharif, the head of the largest opposition party and a longtime foe of President Asif Ali Zardari, were traveling to Islamabad in a convoy to join the planned sit-in. Sharif joined the convoy after ignoring a house arrest order in his hometown of Lahore in Punjab, where his supporters fought running battles with police.

"This is a victory for the people of this country," said lawyer leader Baz Mohammad Kakar. "Chaudhry is the first chief justice in the history of Pakistan who has proved himself to be a judge for the people, as a chief justice for the people."

Chaudhry, 60, was fired by former President Pervez Musharraf in 2007 after he took up cases challenging his rule, sparking a wave of protests that helped force Musharraf from power in 2008.

Musharraf's successor, Zardari, pledged to reinstate Chaudhry within 30 days of taking office, but reneged on the promise, apparently fearing the justice might examine a deal he and his wife, slain politician Benazir Bhutto, struck with Musharraf to grant the pair immunity from prosecution over alleged corruption cases.

The announcement capped a day of high drama.

Before dawn, hundreds of police surrounded Sharif's residence in Lahore, carrying an order for his house arrest. Sharif denounced the order as illegal and later left the house in a convoy of vehicles as police stood by. It was unclear why they relented, but Lahore is Sharif's political stronghold.

Some of the protesters defied police barricades to gather near the city's main courts complex and pelt riot police with rocks. Police responded with tear gas, and beat several protesters with batons. A handful of protesters were detained and bundled into police vans.

Later, the crowd swelled to several thousands and police again pulled back.

U.S. strike kills five in Pakistan

A suspected U.S. missile strike killed two Arabs and three other people in northwest Pakistan late Sunday, intelligence officials said, in the latest in a barrage of American attacks on suspected militant targets in the region. Pakistan's border region with Afghanistan is home to scores of al-Qaida and Taliban militants and the United States is pressing Islamabad to do more to fight them. The remote lawless area is believed to be a likely hiding place for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Since last year, Washington has stepped up attacks by unmanned planes believed launched from bases in Afghanistan. It rarely acknowledges carrying out the attacks, which have killed many militants but angered Pakistan's government. Sunday's attack took place in Chota Janikhel village close to Bannu town, two intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Pakistani chief justice to return 03/15/09 [Last modified: Sunday, March 15, 2009 11:27pm]

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