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Pakistan Police Crack Down on Anti-Musharraf Protests

Pakistani police used tear gas and mass arrests to help break up violent protests over the controversial suspension of the country's top judge. From Islamabad VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports the chief justice is vowing to resist his dismissal, setting up a possible constitutional showdown with the military-backed government.

Lawyers and opposition parties led rallies in cities throughout the country to support the ousted judge, who appeared before a judicial tribunal Friday afternoon.

President Pervez Musharraf suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry last week because of unspecified allegations of abuse of power.

The move has ignited a firestorm of anti-Musharraf sentiment and helped unite political opposition to the president's military backed government.

Chaudhry is well known for his judicial independence and several recent rulings against General Musharraf's administration.

Hamid Gul, former head of the country's powerful intelligence agency, confronted police near the Supreme Court building and called for General Musharraf's resignation.

"He should resign, because otherwise the nation's flared up sentiments cannot be placated and it has the potential for a civil war in it unfortunately," he said.

Much of the capital Islamabad was under a virtual state of emergency Friday.

The downtown area, home to most government offices, was sealed off behind a thick barricade of razor wire and heavily armed police.

Security forces used teargas in several areas and detained scores of protesters.

Members of the hard-line Islamic coalition, the MMA, vowed to maintain the pressure on the government after police briefly arrested one of their leaders.

MMA PROTESTOR: "We are against the government of Pakistan. Today's agitation is very peaceful and we don't want to fight here, but if they fight then we will fight again, insha'Allah."

Police also stormed the offices of a leading independent television station and confronted broadcasters over their coverage of the violent clashes.

President Musharraf apologized by telephone to the station during a live news broadcast several hours after the raid.

Authorities also banned the station's flagship news program Thursday night following the host's pointed commentary on Chaudry's dismissal.

Critics say General Musharraf is targeting the Chief Justice to help protect his hold on power.

Musharraf captured the presidency during a military coup in 1999 but is widely expected to hold elections within the next year.

Thursday he promised to abide by the judicial tribunal's ruling on the Judge's future and accused the opposition of politicizing the issue.

After a two hour hearing Friday the five-member panel adjourned the case until March 21.