Cleric leads thousands in Pakistan protest march

LAHORE, Pakistan (AFP) - An influential Pakistani preacher on Sunday led thousands of supporters at the start of a protest march on the capital Islamabad to demand key reforms before looming elections.

Hundreds of cars, buses and trucks carrying around 7,000 people left the easternmost city of Lahore, expected to grow in number as they passed through towns and villages en route to Islamabad, accompanied by a heavy security presence.

By late Sunday the march had reached the town of Kamoke, some 50 kilometres north of the city, and organisers claimed that up to 200,000 people had joined the slow-moving caravan.

The number of protesters could not be verified independently and police declined to give any estimates.

Tahir-ul Qadri, who is leading the march, accuses the government of being corrupt and incompetent, and argues that Pakistan must enact "meaningful" reforms before general elections, which are scheduled to be held within eight weeks after parliament disbands in mid-March.

The government says Qadri, an Islamic scholar who preaches against terrorism and who returned to Pakistan only last month after years in Canada, is part of a dangerous conspiracy designed to postpone elections and grab power.

Interior minister Rehman Malik on Sunday again warned of a terror threat to protesters, saying he had "credible" intelligence reports that Qadri would be targeted in a possible attack.

The authorities have sealed off the main approaches to Islamabad and warned that the Taliban could attack the march, leading to the closure of schools, businesses and embassies on Monday when the rally is expected to arrive.

"I am declaring it democracy march," Qadri, bespectacled and with a closely cropped white beard, told reporters as activists carried green and white Pakistani flags and a mock coffin to symbolise the "redundant system".

"This is a march for protection of human rights, elimination of poverty, supremacy of constitution, rule of law and end of corruption," Qadri said.

He wants an independent caretaker government, set up in consultation with the military and judiciary, when parliament disbands and before elections.

If polls are held on time, it will mark the first time that a democratically elected civilian government hands over to another democratically elected civilian government in Pakistan, which has seen four military dictators.

Qadri has called for an end to corruption and for electoral reforms to be enacted to allow honest candidates to stand and win, but he has not engaged in specifics.

He has likened his efforts to the Arab spring, but insisted it will not be bloody as it was in Egypt, Libya or Syria.

Pakistan suffers from crushing problems - a flagging economy, a Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked insurgency, record attacks on Shiite Muslims and an energy crisis.

"My word revolution means come to peace and security and to eradicate and remove all kind of terrorism, radicalism, extremism and corruption," Qadri told AFP on Friday.

Police said 10,000 officers had been deployed along the route of the march for the security of the protesters and that an elite commando squad would guard Qadri.

The rally is expected to converge outside Islamabad from various starting points in Punjab.

Political analyst and retired lieutenant general Talat Masood told AFP he believed Qadri had been "dropped from a parachute" to try to disrupt the political process.

Commentators have questioned how Qadri has been able to whip up such large crowds and raise so much money so quickly after returning from Canada.

"It's the same thinking as in the past, to bring a technocrat who comes and brings changes and reforms, improves the economy and focuses on militancy," said Masood.

"I would say that certain elements within the military may have an interest, plus the bureaucracy, plus the businessmen who are not getting energy, gas and face difficulty," he added.

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