KARACHI (AFP) — Thousands of Pakistani lawyers and other opponents of President Pervez Musharraf embarked on a "long march" on Monday aimed at reinstating judges sacked by the embattled US-backed leader.
Chanting "Go Musharraf, Go!", the protesters gathered in the southern port city of Karachi and then set off to travel through several major towns on the way to a major demonstration in Islamabad on Thursday.
The rally will put pressure on both Musharraf, who at the weekend denied speculation that he was to quit, and also on the new coalition government as it struggles to agree on how to restore the judges.
"This is the ultimate push to the falling wall of the tyrant military dictator," Rashid Razvi, president of the Sindh province High Court Bar Association, told protesters before they set off.
"We are on the verge of a victory and the new dawn will come in a matter of a few days."
Black-suited lawyers launched their journey with a noisy demonstration outside the mausoleum of the country's founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah in Karachi, an AFP reporter said.
They were joined by supporters of ousted former premier Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N, hardline religious party Jamaat-e-Islami and the party of cricket hero-turned politician Imran Khan.
"Around 4,000 people participated in the rally," police officer Abdul Haleem told AFP, adding that it was peaceful.
Pakistani lawyers have bitterly opposed Musharraf, who seized power in a coup nine years ago, since he tried to sack the country's outspoken chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, in March 2007.
That move sparked mass protests and the Supreme Court later overturned Chaudhry's suspension, but Musharraf struck back in November by imposing a state of emergency and deposing the judge and other senior colleagues.
But Musharraf has since been weakened by the defeat of his allies in general elections in February and the ruling coalition is set to introduce legislation that would curb his powers.
The new government has pledged to reinstate the judges sacked by Musharraf, but differences over how to do it have caused a split between Sharif and members of slain ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto's party.
The coalition is also divided over how to tackle Musharraf, with Sharif demanding that he be tried for treason but Bhutto's widower Asif Ali Zardari steering clear of a standoff with the president.
However a spokesman for Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party signalled a harder line on Monday, echoing Sharif's comments.
"Musharraf violated the country's constitution, he should be impeached. As far as I am concerned, I would even urge that he should not only be impeached but tried for treason," PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar told AFP.
"Political problems will persist as long as he is in power," Babar added.
The leaders of the marching lawyers have also called for Musharraf to face treason charges, which are punishable by death in Pakistan.
The attorneys left Karachi in a caravan of buses and cars for the southern city of Sukkur, where lawyers from other towns and cities in Sindh and Baluchistan provinces were to converge, Razvi said.
The marchers will then head for the central city of Multan on Tuesday where Chaudhry will address a lawyers' convention. The caravan will then leave for Lahore and reach Islamabad on Thursday.
Musharraf on Saturday rebuffed calls for his resignation and also rejected claims that he was hatching a conspiracy against the ruling coalition.
"I won't resign in the current situation," he told local television channels. "I will live and die here, there is no other way. I don't have any house outside Pakistan."
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