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Pakistan government plans decisive crackdown against protesters

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan is preparing to launch a selective crackdown against anti-government protesters trying to bring down the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the defence minister said, warning demonstrators against storming government buildings.

Dashing chances of a peace deal between the government and protest leaders Imran Khan and Tahir ul-Qadri, anti-government protesters stormed the state television building in the heart of the heavily guarded capital earlier on Monday.

Protesters have also tried to march on Sharif’s residence. Defence Minister Khawaja Asif told Reuters in an interview at his house hours after the attack on the state television building that the government would not hesitate to enforce its writ and was considering cracking down against those attacking state institutions.

“If not mass arrests, selective use of force can be used,” Asif said, describing one option the government may decide to exercise following a meeting between the prime minister and his top aides.

“The writ of the state must be enforced. We hope to make a decisive move sometimes later today, not in the evening but even before that,” he said. “I personally feel that the next few hours will determine the course of coming events.

“Commentators have been divided over what Sharif could do to defuse the crisis, and Asif’s remarks for the first time confirmed that a crackdown on protesters was on the cards as the government debates its further actions.

Asif, considered to be in favour of talks, is one of a growing number of members of Sharif's cabinet who believe it is time for tougher action against thousands of protesters massed in Islamabad to demand the prime minister step down. Round after round of negotiations have failed to end the crisis that has gripped Pakistan for more than two weeks, with Khan and Qadri saying they will not back down unless Sharif resigns.

The army is bound to play a key role in how the conflict unfolds but it has not directly intervened, apart from talking to the protagonists and calling on them to show restraint. In a brief statement late on Sunday, the army reaffirmed its commitment to democracy and said the crisis had to be solved politically.

“Further use of force will only aggravate the problem. It was once again reiterated that the situation should be resolved politically without wasting any time and without recourse to violent means,” it said.