Pakistan's capital on Monday braced for a major
anti-government protest, called by a cleric whose supporters began
converging on Islamabad to demand electoral reforms.
Thousands of supporters of Tahir ul Qadri, who started his march from the eastern city of Lahore Sunday, were slowly moving towards the capital after an overnight stay in Kharian, a garrison town 120 kilometers east of Islamabad.
Hundreds of men and women had reached the protest site adjacent to the Blue Area commercial zone, about 3 kilometres from the parliament building and presidential palace.
Interior Ministry spokesman Nawazish Ali said there was no restriction on the marchers entering Islamabad but the government would take "strict action" against anyone disturbing law and order.
"We have a contingency plan in place if somebody tries to breach the law and the lines which we have drawn for the march," Ali said.
After Interior Minister Rehman Malik earlier had said he had credible information that militants would try to attack the march, security was stepped up, and residents stayed home.
Islamabad's usually bustling roads were empty as commuters gathered at bus stops for transportation that didn't come.
All government offices and educational institutions as well as some private firms declared a holiday because of fears of unrest. Traders also closed their businesses because of concerns about looting.
Main roads were barricaded, and vehicles and people were searched at entry points to the capital.
Cellular phone service was suspended in some parts of Islamabad and along the march route.
Thousands of police and paramilitary personnel were deployed to provide security, and helicopters were seen hovering over the city. Arrangements were made to fortify the "Red Zone" housing key government buildings and most of the diplomatic missions.
Participants promised to stay in Islamabad until the government agreed to their demands.
"We will not go back till our demands are accepted," a young woman wearing a headband inscribed with Qadri's slogan for the march, "Save the state, not politics!" told Sama TV.
Another participant charged that while parliament had introduced laws to ensure transparency in elections, they were not being implemented.
Her reference was to last year's amendment to the constitution that regulated appointments of neutral election chiefs to oversee the national vote, which was expected this spring.
Television footage showed marchers sitting on the tops of buses and vans, braving cold weather and waving flags as they moved towards Islamabad.
Qadri wants the government to implement election reforms ordered in a Supreme Court ruling last year, including regulating election funding and banning activities that could manipulate voting.
The cleric heads a religious and welfare group called Minhaj-ul-Quran International, which has thousands of followers around the world.
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